Up for Debate: Do Navy Readiness Woes Require Drastic Action?​

The U.S. Navy has arguably experienced a readiness crisis for the last 15 years in terms of its ability to deploy combat-credible forces in three forward-deployed regional “hubs”: the Western Pacific, Europe/Mediterranean, and the Persian Gulf/Red Sea. Studies, including the Balisle report and the Center for Naval Analyses (“CNA”) “Tipping Point” analysis, raised alarms in 2010 by suggesting that the Navy’s desire for a large surge capacity, coupled with a shrinking, aging fleet with reduced funding would cause series readiness impacts to the fleet. Recent reports and analysis suggest these warnings were correct. Drastic measures must be taken to correct Navy readiness failings as the so-called “Davidson Window” of potential war with the People’s Republic of China approaches.

The latest Board of Inspection and Survey (“INSURV”) report from the Navy to Congress stated that ships’ readiness had consistently declined since 2017, despite Navy measures to reverse that trend. 37% of the Navy’s nuclear attack submarine force, a vital component of any Indo-Pacific conflict, is mired in long-term maintenance. Some boats have been in the yards for almost seven years. Multiple warship classes, including the Ticonderoga-class cruisers, the Whitby Island-class amphibious warships plus the first ships of the Flight 1 Arleigh Burke-class destroyers, will depart the fleet before the end of this decade without one-for-one replacement. The amphibious fleet has been the source of a Navy/Marine Corps feud, aided and abetted by the Defense Department’s Coast Assessment and Program Evaluation (“CAPE”) office. The Marine Corps’ required number of thirty-one amphibious warships will likely slip this decade, and it will be at least ten years or more before new construction returns to 31 ships. Aircraft carriers Nimitz and Dwight Eisenhower will leave active service, and only one new flattop (USS John F. Kennedy) will join the fleet. Fires and accidents remain a problem: from the 2017 collisions and groundings, the 2021 fire that destroyed the amphibious assault ship USS Bonhomme Richard pier-side, a 2022 near-collision between the destroyer Momsen and the amphibious ship Harpers Ferry, to more recent fires on the amphibious ship Boxer and the USS San Diego at sea.

The Navy has become too small and poorly maintained to support the constant deployment of 100 ships, a number that supports baseline capability in the three forward geographic hub locations. The service needs massive operational restructuring to build a ready fleet capable of facing multiple opponents. The Navy should accept that many of its aging ships will not be at or returned to full readiness for overseas deployment. Those cruisers, older destroyers, and amphibious warships with some remaining service life should be reduced to lower levels of readiness with 50% crewing to preserve their capabilities without further expending their service lives in rotational, overseas deployments. Much like the reserve frigates of the Cold War era, those reduced manning ships would remain in U.S. coastal waters with occasional underway periods for crew training and basic system maintenance. Relived of the need to man, train, and equip nearly 300 ships, the Navy would be able to focus more funding and effort on the remaining, newer ships that would bear the initial brunt of an Indo-Pacific fight. The overall number of “ready” ships could drop closer to 200, but those units could be reliably assumed to be ready for immediate action. Those in reduced readiness could be restored as needed and with available funds. The Navy cannot continue its current, dangerous course of poor readiness. Let recrimination over past failures and allow current Navy leaders to mitigate past readiness failures by building a smaller – yet much more ready – fleet in the present.

Reply of Seth Cropsey, President, Yorktown Institute

Dr. Wills’ point, that the Navy’s readiness crisis demands a confrontation with operational reality, is uncontestable. Trapped between stagnating budgets, a shrinking fleet, and a growing set of global responsibilities, after around two decades of breakneck deployments the Navy has reached its breaking point. Yet one may endorse Wills’ diagnosis of the problem while diverging on the solution. The Navy is a bureaucratic actor, not just a military service. It must be eminently conscious of domestic political and legislative context. Post-Cold War naval leadership has seldom considered these factors, leading to programmatic decisions that may have strategic merit, but, in fact, just cut into the Navy’s long-term force structure.

In a hostile budgetary and interservice environment, the Navy should consider force reductions with care and abundant skepticism. It seems highly unlikely that the ships Dr. Wills suggests the Navy move to reserve status will reenter the fleet. More probable is a rerun of the Ticonderoga-class debacle of the 2010s, where the Navy essentially deactivated half of its cruiser fleet with the expectation that funds would later enable reactivations: the necessary funding never arrived.  The choice is not between a 300-ship partly-manned Navy or a 200-ship fully-manned one with a reserve, but between a 300-ship Navy and a 150-to-200-ship one. Invariably, a recapitalization-focused Office of the Secretary of Defense will demand the Navy accelerate other reserve transfers, and then de facto retire these ships. If political will is lacking today to build a fleet commensurate with the U.S.’ needs, what reason is there to expect that such will surface in the future—before it is too late?

Moreover, while many of the fleet’s ships are older than historically standard, they remain effective enough combatants. The Navy’s Nimitz-class carriers could theoretically serve another four-plus decades, as long as their reactors were overhauled and basic structure remained intact. Future Carrier Air Wings could swap manned strike fighters for unmanned aircraft. The Arleigh Burkes and Ticonderogas currently set for retirement—if they received basic maintenance and were wholly crewed—would only need new weapons to remain effective in the future. The issue is not age per se, but maintenance, repair, and armament. There is no substitute for production because of combat damage, but older hulls may be far more viable than in other periods.

In turn, although there are unmistakable issues with basic seamanship that stem from a far-overstressed operational pace, the heart of the Navy’s problem is far more specific. The Navy’s submarine fleet, its essential warfighting arm today, is at around half of its ideal deployable strength. Dr. Wills reasonably identifies this issue but conflates it with the broader industrial base and manning problem. The submarine industrial base in particular is brittle, with medium-tier suppliers that are under great pressure to meet orders absent long-lead times.

Dr. Wills does not confront the strategic questions that stand behind his well-grounded evaluation. The Navy needs a coherent strategic concept, a linkage between its force structure, operational activities, maritime strategy, and US grand strategy. This connection does not exist by Joint design. After all, the Navy need not have a strategy conceived independently of the other services, since the Service is but a part of the Joint Force. The bureaucratic logic that capitalizes on the Navy’s budgetary vulnerability stems from the broader system that undermines American strategy making and operational art. Jointness, conceived even by the proponents of the 1986 Goldwater-Nichols legislation, as a means has become an end in itself, at the expense of strategy informed by military service expertise.

The solution is not to shrink the fleet, but to advocate for the budget that the Navy needs, conduct an aggressive recruitment drive, and ensure that the Service is guided by a strategy that links its actions to national ends.

This article originally appeared at the Center for Maritime Strategy.

Seth Cropsey is the founder and president of Yorktown Institute.

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