Leadership: U.S. Navy Ordered To Shrink


May 7, 2010: The leadership in the U.S. Department of Defense has told the U.S. Navy that it must be more mission oriented, and less concerned about maintaining certain quantities and types of ships. In short, the navy leaders were being warned to build, and maintain, forces needed for current, and likely, missions, and to forget about refighting World War II, or the Cold War.

At the end of World War II, the United States possessed the largest, and most powerful, navy the world had ever seen. Even with the massive demobilization after World War II, the U.S. still deployed most of the world's active, sea going, warships. In the 1960s, 70s and 80s, the Soviet Union tried to create a fleet large enough to threaten American naval dominance, but came close only on paper. The Soviet fleet was too expensive for the Russians to maintain, and it largely disappeared within a few years of the Soviet Union's demise (in 1991).

Now the American admirals are being asked to reassess which ships are worth what cost for what jobs. For example. a 36,000 ton, World War II Essex class carrier cost $540 million (adjusted for inflation), and 24 were built. These ships were crucial for winning control of the seas. But times have changed. We think World War II in the Pacific as the "war of the carriers" and the "beginning of the carrier age." Well, that's technically true. But keep in mind that only five carrier to carrier battles were fought during the entire war, all between May 1942 and June 1944. There hasn't been another carrier versus carrier battle since the Battle of the Philippine Sea in June, 1944. That's over fifty years, and another one doesn't look too likely any time soon. The "carrier versus carrier" era lasted only twenty five months. In fact, the last carrier to carrier combat that was anything like an even fight was the Battle of Santa Cruz Islands. This was also the last time an American carrier was sunk in a carrier battle. In effect, the "Golden Age of Carrier Battles" lasted from May to October, 1942. Five months. Four battles.

Carriers proved to be more useful against everything but other carriers. Attacks on enemy bases, shipping and in support of amphibious landings comprised the bulk of carrier activity throughout the war. Although land based aircraft were two to three times as effective as carrier planes, the carriers could be swiftly moved across the vast expanse of the Pacific. It was this mobility that made carriers less effective. The carriers could not lug around as much avgas or munitions as a land base could stockpile. Operating at sea caused more damage to the aircraft, and the shortage of space on a carrier made aircraft maintenance more difficult. But despite these limitations, the aircraft carrier reigned supreme across the Pacific. As long as the carriers stayed away from more numerous land based aircraft (something the Japanese weren't able to muster by 1944), the carriers could slug it out with anything they came up against. Note that the last American carrier lost in combat was a victim of land based aircraft. And the second most dangerous foe of carriers was submarines. Thus, since late 1942, the carrier situation hasn't changed. The U.S. carrier fleet is supreme and it's only foe is large number of land based aircraft and submarines. But with longer ranged land based aircraft (thanks to inflight refueling), how many carriers are needed. A Nimitz class carrier, which is four times larger (by internal volume) than an Essex class carrier, costs $6 billion, and ten were built. Is the Nimitz eleven times as effective as the Essex? A World War II U.S. diesel-electric submarine cost $36 million (adjusted for inflation.) A modern diesel electric costs ten times as much. Nuclear attack subs cost $2 billion.

Ships are a lot more expensive today because they are larger, and a lot more capable. Better weapons, electronics and machinery have made them deadlier. These new ships have smaller crews, but even with that cost savings, these ships are much more expensive. The Department of Defense is telling the navy, in rather strong terms, that there will not be enough money, at least in the next few years, to pay for replacing many of the major warships currently in service. The navy must plan to get by with fewer than 11 aircraft carriers. These 100,000 ton vessels are unique to the United States. No one else has ever had anything like them. These large carriers (mainly the Nimitz class) have been very useful, especially since smart bombs became cheaper and more reliable. With Nimitz class carriers, the navy can put accurate firepower on where most of the world's population lives (near a coast). In late 2001, carrier aircraft provided most of the bombers over Afghanistan. But the navy won't get enough money to keep eleven (it was twelve not too long ago) of these carriers in service. Same deal with the dozen large amphibious ships (that look like small aircraft carriers). Only three others exist, all operated by allies. And then there is the American nuclear submarine fleet, or 57 boats. More than the rest of the world (including lots of allies) combined.

Meanwhile, new technologies make robotic ships, submarines and aircraft affordable and effective. The navy is being told to buy more of this stuff. Robotic equipment is cheaper and, well, more expendable. If the navy needs this new gear, and is scrambling to find the cash to replace the old-school ships and aircraft, something has to give. The Department of Defense brass are telling the admirals that the old is out and the new should be at the top of the shopping list. Just a suggestion, of course.



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