The 2020 Navy—Bigger, Tougher, Possibly Broke
U.S. Navy’s top officer previews future battle fleet… and budgetary risk
In six years, the U.S. Navy will have more ships, more cutting-edge weaponry and tactics and a greater ability to both show the flag in peacetime and sink enemy fleets during war.
That’s what Adm. Jonathan Greenert, the Chief of Naval Operations, told the U.S. Senate in late March. But Greenert’s sweeping vision of a bigger and deadlier fleet came with a chilling caveat.
Congress’ refusal to pass adequate budgets could undermine the expanding Navy, the admiral warned, robbing it of vital training and maintenance funds and forcing it to decommission some of its most powerful warships.
Today’s fleet numbers 290 front-line warships plus more than a hundred ships in the quasi-military Sealift Command and in ready reserve, manned and supported by 600,000 active and reserve sailors and Navy civilians.
Total cost: $150 billion a year, a sum that also pays for the entire U.S. Marine Corps.
Right now the sailing branch forward-deploys 104 warships, according to Greenert—48 ships in the Western Pacific, 32 in the Middle East, 21 in European waters, two off of East Africa and a single vessel in Latin America. The balance of the battle fleet—185 ships—is in the U.S. for maintenance and training.
The 2020 battle fleet will be bigger—308 vessels, Greenert vowed. No fewer than 123 will be on deployment at any given time, concentrating in Asian waters. Sixty-seven warships will sail the Pacific to deter a rising China. Forty-one will patrol the Middle East.
Over the next six years, the Navy will reduce the number of ships in Europe by nearly half and roughly hold steady off Africa and Latin America.
The mix of ships will change. The Navy has a long-term requirement for 306 front-line warships: 11 nuclear carriers; 11 assault ships; 22 other amphibious-warfare vessels; 52 small surface combatants including Littoral Combat Ships, frigates and mine-hunters; 88 destroyers and cruisers; 48 attack submarines; 12 ballistic missile submarines; 29 logistics ships and 33 support ships including command and salvage vessels.
The current fleet has an excess of submarines but a big shortfall in small combatants, owing to delays acquiring Littoral Combat Ships and to the Navy’s rushed disposal of old frigates and mine-hunters. In 2020, there will also be a small shortage of assault ships, destroyers and cruisers, Greenert warned. “This force structure capacity provides less margin for error.”
Budgetary woes could widen the gaps. Today’s fleet keeps two flattops and two assault ships forward plus another three carriers and three assault ships on stand-by—a force sufficient to wage one war and deter another, according to Greenert.
If Congress doesn’t finally cancel the automatic “sequestration” budget cuts by 2016, the Navy could have no choice but to decommission an aircraft carrier and its air wing. That, the admiral said, “would leave us with a Navy that is capable of one … contingency,” rather than the current two.
The budget squeeze also threatens the Navy’s efforts to counter high-tech enemy air defenses including long-range surface-to-air missiles and radar-evading stealth fighters.
To beat the latest Russian, Chinese, North Korean and Iranian defenses, the Navy is assembling sophisticated “fire-control” networks of carrier-launched armed drones, EA-18G electronic warfare planes and F-35C stealth fighters that scout ahead for missile-armed F/A-18E/F fighter-bombers.
New E-2D command planes packing high-tech sensors and radios watch over and coordinate everything.
Sequestration is preventing the sailing branch from buying several dozen EA-18Gs it says it needs—and is also slowing down the acquisition of F-35Cs and, arguably more critically, E-2Ds. Greenert said that by 2020 he wants to outfit six of the Navy’s 10 carrier air wings with E-2Ds and, by extension, the next-generation fire-control net.
Sequestration reduces the roll-out to just four air wings over the next six years.
To be clear, even after big reductions, the U.S. Navy would still be by far the world’s most powerful maritime force. But that doesn’t mean Greenert isn’t worried. Budget cuts could reduce capacity and increase risk. “I remain deeply concerned,” the admiral said.