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Ship Building 1981-89 - Reagan, Ronald

By the mid-1970s, a muscle-flexing Soviet Union began to cause serious concern in Washington. The USSR spent enormous resources on its war-making establishment, hoping to take advantage of America's post-Vietnam retrenchment. The Soviets deployed thousands of mobile, intercontinental ballistic missiles and other nuclear-armed weapons, built up large ground and air forces in Eastern Europe and the Far East, and aided Communist guerrilla movements in Africa, Asia, and Latin America. Of greatest concern to the U.S. Navy, Soviet naval forces increased their presence around the world, challenging America's overseas interests and control of the sea. A 1975 Soviet naval exercise, Okean 75, involved 220 ships and new, long-range bombers in mock strikes against the continental United States. Soviet warships steamed brazenly in all the world's oceans, and even in the Gulf of Mexico. As a symbol of the changing naval balance of power, Soviet surface combatants and patrol planes began operating from the American-built base at Cam Ranh Bay in Vietnam. Just before he retired as Chief of Naval Operations in June 1978, Admiral James L. Holloway III concluded that the U.S. Navy then had only a "slim margin of superiority" over the Soviet navy.

President Ronald Reagan was elected President partly on his pledge to restore America's military superiority. Caspar W. Weinberger, the nation's 15th secretary of defense, Weinberger served as the point man for President Ronald Reagan's unprecedented peacetime military buildup. Weinberger also championed the so-called "Star Wars" missile defense program, the Air Force's B-1B bomber, and a "600-ship" Navy. Weinberger took office Jan. 21, 1981, and served until Nov. 23, 1987, making him the longest-serving defense secretary to date.

In addition to strengthening the nation's strategic retaliatory arm with advanced B-1B bombers, deploying Pershing II theater missiles to Europe, and producing sophisticated Abrams main battle tanks and Bradley armored fighting vehicles, his administration dramatically increased the size and capability of the U.S. Navy. In 1981 USS Ohio (SSBN-726), the largest submarine ever built and the first of her class, was commissioned. The ship carried 24 Trident I nuclear missiles, each one capable of hitting targets 4,000 miles distant.

Stepped up was construction of the 90,000-ton, nuclear-powered Nimitz-class carriers, Los Angeles-class nuclear attack submarines, and the Ticonderoga-class guided missile cruisers equipped with the revolutionary Aegis antiair warfare system. Also joining the fleet during the 1980s were Tomahawk land attack, Harpoon antiship, and high-speed, anti-radiation (HARM) missiles; improved versions of the F-14 Tomcat fighter, A-6 Intruder attack, and EA-6B Prowler electronic countermeasures aircraft; and the new F/A-18 Hornet strike fighter. The venerable battleships USS Iowa (BB-61), USS New Jersey (BB-62), USS Missouri (BB-63), and USS Wisconsin (BB-64) once again put to sea with their awesome 16-inch guns and new Tomahawk surface-to-surface missile batteries.

With these advanced instruments of sea power, naval leaders concluded that if it came to war with the USSR, the Navy should follow a new strategy-a Maritime Strategy. Admiral Thomas B. Hayward and his successor as Chief of Naval Operations, Admiral James D. Watkins, argued that the Navy should exploit its inherent flexibility and mobility by hitting the enemy when and where he was most vulnerable. Rather than passively trying to guard America's sea lines of communication to Europe, the fleet should mount offensive operations in northern Europe and the Far East and force the Soviet Union to fight a disadvantageous two-front war.

Between 1970 and 1980 the total number of ships in the U.S. Navy fell from 847 to 538 and uniformed personnel strength declined from 675,000 to about 525,000. Although the remaining ships were newer and more capable than those retired, the Navy now has substantially fewer ships with which to sustain its peacetime commitments or to conduct wartime operations.

Watkins and John Lehman, an outspoken, forceful, and media-wise Secretary of the Navy, persuaded Congress and many citizens that the Maritime Strategy was the right approach, and that the nation needed a "600-ship Navy" to carry it out. By 1990, the Navy had not reached the 600-ship number, but did operate the most powerful fleet on earth with 15 carrier battle groups, 4 battleship surface action groups, 100 attack submarines, and scores more cruisers, destroyers, frigates, amphibious ships, and auxiliaries. Along with the new and improved ships, aircraft, and weapons came additional resources to recruit, retain, and train the professional sailors who were so essential to modern operations.

Much of the defense buildup during the 1980-85 period required production from durable manufacturing industries in which nondefense production was either declining or growing slowly. Increasing defense outlays, therefore, cushioned a reduction in production jobs, even though defense accounted for only a small portion of total output and employment of these industries. Between 1977 and 1980, real defense spending increased by about 2 percent annually. However, between 1980 and 1985, defense expenditures accelerated, increasing by 5.5 percent annually. By 1985, national defense represented $235.7 billion or 6.6 percent of GNP - the largest proportion of the economy during the peacetime buildup.

The shipbuilding industry was more dependent on defense expenditures than any other industry in 1985. Neatly all (93 percent) of new ship construction and repair and renovation work was produced for the military. This is a dramatic increase from the 61-percent defense share of total output in 1980 and the 45-percent share in 1977. Naval construction and repair increased 42 percent between 1980 and 1985, while overall shipbuilding declined 15 percent. Defense jobs in shipbuilding increased by almost 24,000 from 1980 to 1983, as total industry jobs dropped by 34,000.

The fleet envisioned by Navy planners features 15 deployable aircraft carriers, with their associated air wings and battle group escorts, which would form the primary offensive strike forces. The carrier battle groups would be supplemented by four surface action groups (SAGs), which are naval combat groups not containing aircraft carriers. SAGs would be centered upon the four battleships that the Administration reactivated.

Lift capability for amphibious forces - that is, forces capable of making a forcible invasion from the sea - would be increased about 50 percent to provide a capability to land a Marine Amphibious Brigade, or MAB (15,500 troops), in addition to the current ability to land a Marine Amphibious Force, or MAF (32,500 troops). The Navy increased its force level goal for attack submarines from 90 to 100, and intended to replace its 25 old minesweepers with 31 new ships.

Number of Ships
Ship TypeCurrent ForceObjective
Aircraft Carriers1215
Battle Group Escorts112137
Attack Submarines91100
Small Combatants5-
Total Combatants301357
Other Ships
Amphibious Ships6575
Mine Warfare Ships2531
Replenishment Ships5369
Material Support Ships2627
Fleet Support Ships3033
Total, Other Types199235
Ballistic Missile Submarines (SSBNs)35Unstated
Total, All Ships535592 + SSBNs

The increased dependence of the shipbuilding industry on military orders was sustained in the 1980 through 1985 period because of the Administration's commitment to a 600-ship fleet by the end of the decade. In 1980, the number of deployable naval battle forces was 479. By 1985, that number reached 542. The increase was mainly attributed to the addition to the fleet of frigates, nuclear attack submarines, and surface support ships (transport ships similar in construction to commercial ships). At the rate of 20 to 25 new deployable ships per year (new construction and conversions) throughout the remainder of the decade, the 600-ship goal could be attained.

In 1983 the Congressional Budget Office examined four program options. Options I and II, would achieve the number and types of ships recommended by the Navy. Option I would reach these goals by 1992, which meant the ships would have to be authorized no later than 1988. This was probably the shortest period of time in which the Navy's goals could be reached. Congress could decide to accomplish the same goals, but over a longer time. Hence, Option II would extend the authorization period from six to ten years, with authorizations extending through fiscal year 1992 and force goals substantially achieved by 1996.

Option III would be a lower cost alternative producing fewer ships, but one in which the kinds of ships procured would all be of the same types contained in current Navy plans. It would result in a substantially smaller fleet than Options I and II. Option IV would introduce some ship types not contained in Navy plans. It would attain numerical force levels comparable to the Navy goals at a lower cost than Options I or II.

Since the end of the Cold War, the size of the U.S. military decreased dramatically. At one time, the Navy envisioned a need for a 600-ship fleet. At the end of fiscal year (FY) 1988, the Navy had a total battle force of 566 ships. By the end of FY 1998, this number had dropped to approximately 330.

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Page last modified: 07-07-2011 12:52:34 ZULU