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San Diego Union-Tribune October 02, 2003

Navy has fewest ships since before World War I

By James W. Crawley

When the last sailor walked off the amphibious ship Anchorage this week, ending the ship's 34 years of naval service, the Navy's fleet of warships shrank to its smallest size since before World War I. Above, the Anchorage pulls into the 32nd Street Naval Station in July.

When the last sailor walked off the amphibious ship Anchorage yesterday, ending the ship's 34 years of naval service, the Navy's fleet of warships shrank to its smallest size since before World War I.

The battle force - the Navy's fleet of front-line aircraft carriers, cruisers, destroyers, amphibious ships and selected support vessels - now numbers 296 ships with the Anchorage's decommissioning.

The Navy has continued to shrink despite increasing demands on the maritime force since the Sept. 11, 2001, terror attacks.

During the past two years, the Navy has been very busy. Dozens of warships fired cruise missiles, launched bombers and carried Marines during recent operations in Afghanistan and Iraq. Some of those same ships deployed Marines to Liberia and the Horn of Africa. Others are watching developments on the Korean Peninsula.

"We've cut too deep," said Rep. Duncan Hunter, R-El Cajon, chairman of the House Armed Services Committee. "We need more ships."

However, Navy officials say it's necessary to decommission older, more costly ships such as the Anchorage to save enough money to buy new warships. At the same time, many defense analysts say the Navy can slim down even further without undue risk because today's warships are more technologically advanced and in larger numbers than any other navy.

More than two decades ago, President Reagan called for a 600-ship Navy to challenge the Soviet Union. The Navy got close, with a shipbuilding program that produced a fleet of 594 vessels.

But today the Navy has shrunk to its smallest size since dreadnoughts and Britain's Royal Navy ruled the waves supreme - and in coming years, it will continue shrinking.

During the past fiscal year, which ended Tuesday, 20 ships - from the carrier Constellation to the landing ship Frederick - were retired, while only four new vessels were added to the fleet.

Ten ships, starting with the Anchorage, will be decommissioned during the next 12 months. Six warships - four destroyers and two submarines - will be added to the fleet during the same period.

By 2006, the Navy's battle force will have only 291 ships, according to Pentagon budget plans.

Not until 2009 is the fleet scheduled to climb above 300 vessels again.

The fleet's smaller size has some naval advocates, including two powerful local congressmen, worried as the United States continues to fight a global war on terrorism that is likely to last for years.

"Our naval forces should be greater," Hunter said.

Fewer ships contribute to longer deployments for sailors and Marines, said Rep. Randy "Duke" Cunningham, R-Escondido. Long deployments will reduce personnel retention and increase ship repair costs, he added.

The numbers also worry some naval officers.

"It's significant because the Navy operates all over the world, and to be able to respond to any contingency, you have to have the numbers," said Rear Adm. Willie Marsh, who commands Amphibious Group 3, based in San Diego. He spoke yesterday after the Anchorage's decommissioning.

Top Navy officials and several outside naval analysts believe the Navy can survive with fewer ships for several years.

Navy leaders have projected a 375-ship fleet in 20 years or so, if Congress buys a new class of small, maneuverable high-tech ships. But current official plans project a fleet of 310 warships.

"Focusing on numbers alone is not the answer to building a fleet," said Lt. Elissa Smith, a Navy spokeswoman in Washington.

By decommissioning older, less-capable warships, the Navy expects to save money to offset the cost of building and maintaining more modern ships, including a new class of amphibious vessels joining the fleet in two years, new destroyers and dozens of "littoral combat" ships.

New San Antonio-class amphibious ships, which carry Marines and their weaponry, will be added to the fleet in coming years, Marsh said.

New missile-carrying destroyers are envisioned to replace older cruisers.

The littoral vessels would be small warships capable of operating near coastlines, with a modular design so different war-fighting capabilities could be added or removed to match each mission.

Hunter and Cunningham strongly favor building more new ships, but worry that the force is being cut too thin in the near term.

A strong Navy is needed for several reasons, Hunter said, including protection of the long sea lanes between the United States and possible trouble spots, guarding against potential terrorist attacks in the Middle East and Asia, the potential for conflict on the Korean Peninsula and the rising military strength of China.

"The world's oceans haven't shrunk," Hunter added.

But GlobalSecurity.org defense analyst John Pike said America's enemies have shrunk from Cold War days.

With no monolithic enemy like the Soviet Union, the Pentagon has trouble proving its need for a huge maritime force, he said.

"Do we have enough ships to do what?" Pike asked rhetorically.

While many conservatives worry about the growing Chinese threat, several analysts said China's navy is decades away from challenging the U.S. fleet.

"No one is going to challenge us at sea for the next 20 years," said analyst and naval historian Norman Polmar.

Having an adequate fleet to deal with adversaries on faraway shores is a paramount concern, said Cunningham, a Vietnam-era Navy fighter ace and member of the House Appropriations Committee.

"I think 360 is the magic number," he added. "At 300 ships, you turn into a pumpkin, and we're (still) going down."

But many analysts doubt there is a major concern in having a fleet smaller than 300 ships because the numbers game is less significant than in past decades.

"It's ludicrous to compare today's Navy with the ships of World War II," Polmar said.

A single aircraft carrier today has more firepower than all the U.S. carriers of World War II. A guided-missile cruiser that launched dozens of Tomahawk cruise missiles at Baghdad six months ago is vastly more capable than a cruiser built in the 1960s.

Also, only the United States and allies such as Britain, Japan, Italy and Australia have state-of-the-art warships.

The military's needs also have changed.

Today's Navy, largely designed to fight a blue-water war against the Soviets, has transformed itself into a force that sits off the coast and strikes deep into enemy territory with cruise missiles, attack bombers and long-range assaults by Marines.

"The issue is not how many ships we have; the issue is how many ships we can put in harm's way at a time," Pike said.

The Navy's recently instituted surge plan, which keeps carriers and their escorts at heightened states of readiness and training, helps mitigate the smaller fleet size, said Robert Work, an analyst at the Washington, D.C.-based Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments.

With no immediate naval threat, Work said, "I think the chief of naval operations (Adm. Vern Clark) did the right thing. Sacrificing numbers to build up the fleet in the long term is very prudent."

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James W. Crawley: (619) 542-4559; jim.crawley@uniontrib.com


Copyright 2003 Union-Tribune Publishing Co.