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Surface Warfare Shipbuilding

During the 1980s, the Navy pursued a 600-ship force goal as part of its maritime strategy to prepare for a global war against the Soviet Union. This goal included 238 surface combatants. In August 1990, the President announced a shift in U.S. defense strategy from a Soviet threat to major regional conflicts (MRC) against uncertain adversaries. The following year, DOD proposed a "base force" plan to reflect the new strategy that reduced the force structure to about 450 ships (including 150 surface combatants), which would be a sufficient level to counter a possible reemergence of the Soviet threat.

With the end of the Cold War, the Navy significantly reduced its number of surface combatants from about 220 in the late 1980s to 125-115 active cruisers, destroyers, and frigates and 10 reserve frigates-at the end of fiscal year 1996. The number of ships remained at or about the 1996 level through fiscal year 2001 but will gradually increase through the next decade to 142 ships in fiscal year 2010.

The post-Cold War Bottom-Up Review concluded that a Navy comprised of 346 battle force ships 4 would be sufficient to carry out the U.S. military strategy by fiscal year 1999. It did not, however, specify a force goal for surface combatants. In congressional presentations subsequent to the review, DOD and the Navy indicated that 120 to 126 surface combatants would be needed to meet national security objectives. However, this force was determined largely from budget-driven priorities.

DOD's Future Years Defense Program supports a force of at least 125 surface combatants that, according to DOD officials, is largely based on budget, industrial base, and operational considerations. DOD has not established a long-term surface combatant goal based on the number of ships it needs to implement the national security strategy. DOD has not clearly explained the process used to determine the number of surface combatants needed to fulfill the two nearly simultaneous major regional conflict (MRC) scenario specified in DOD guidance or the number needed to meet desired levels of peacetime presence, as it has done with aircraft carriers. It is unclear what key assumptions support the force size, such as expected allied contributions to war-fighting objectives.

The Navy's Surface Warfare Division's August 1995 Surface Combatant Force Level Study concluded that 165 cruisers, destroyers, and frigates would be needed through 2010 to meet war-fighting requirements of two nearly simultaneous MRCs. According to the study, however, this number could be reduced to 145 ships, including 10 reserve frigates, with use of allied surface combatants. The subsequent 21st Century Surface Combatant Force Architecture Assessment, completed in February 1996 by the Naval Surface Warfare Center, suggested that the surface combatant force level from 2010 to 2030 could be even smaller than the 145-ship force recommended by the earlier study.

Tethered Presence refers to the practice of maintaining ships at acceptable distances away from a specific area of presence operations while allowing them to return within a specified number of days. The tethered presence policy is a Chairman, Joint Chiefs of Staff, and DOD policy that is supported by funding in the fiscal year 1998 budget and the Future Years Defense Program for fiscal years 1998 through 2003. This policy results in lower force level requirements than those needed to support continuous presence in all three major regions. DOD analyses for the Quadrennial Defense Review show that tethered presence requires about 110 surface combatants, including 16 ships assigned to the Western Hemisphere group and 10 with similar missions on the West Coast of the United States, to support operations, such as counternarcotics, in other areas. DOD considers this force to be adequate to meet the apportionment of forces required by the commanders in chief for the current two nearly simultaneous MRC strategy.

The Navy has studied the effect on force size of changing the two nearly simultaneous MRC requirement. With the assumption that a 145-ship force of current ship types, with some allied support, is needed for the current MRC requirement, the assessment calculated that changing the requirement to two simultaneous MRCs could increase the required force size by about 20 ships. Changing the requirement to two sequential MRCs or one MRC could reduce the war-fighting force requirement by as much as 45 ships (assuming some allied support), to only 100 ships.

Force Trends

Although the size of the force has declined, surface combatants represent more than one-third of the Navy's battle force ships, and the proportion and number of ships in the force with the Aegis combat system have been increasing. To reduce its Cold War force, the Navy retired many of its older, less apable surface combatants before the end of their planned service lives. Frigates were reduced more than other surface combatants because of the diminished threat to naval carrier battle groups and merchant shipping in the open ocean.

The Department of Defense (DOD) and the Navy are pursuing a surface combatant force size and construction program based largely on budget priorities, industrial base concerns, and operational requirements. However, DOD has not clearly explained the link and any underlying assumptions between the force and the national military strategy. DOD and Navy studies illustrate that the size of the force can vary widely depending on the specific assumptions considered.

Several factors could affect the size, composition, and overall capability of the surface combatant force through the middle of the next century. These factors include decisions related to the appropriate size and mix of surface combatants within the Navy and other DOD priorities and force efficiency strategies, such as expanded overseas home porting and alternative deployment schemes, which could help to increase force availability and use.

Technological innovations could also affect the requirement for surface combatants. These improvements could provide greater efficiencies in the use of the force and allow changes in doctrine and operational concepts that could reduce force requirements. These include improvements to the Tomahawk cruise missile, which could allow the missile to be used for tactical applications in support of ground operations; modifications to the Aegis combat system and Standard missile, which could provide a defense against theater ballistic missile attacks while operating in littoral areas; and introduction of the Cooperative Engagement Capability on existing and new combatants, other ships, and airborne elements, which will enhance ship self-defense capabilities by increasing response time and the amount of information available to defend against antiship cruise missile threats. It is also possible that the introduction of the Arsenal Ship, which would carry a large inventory of missiles and potentially serve several military purposes, could permit the Navy and the other services to retire or forego purchases of some assets, such as aircraft carriers, surface combatants, ground-based launchers, or combat aircraft.

Potential changes in operational practices could increase the availability of ships for deployment in peacetime. These changes include consideration of additional overseas home ports and changes to deployment schemes and personnel policies, such as shortening the time between deployments. Lengthening the deployment period, rotating crews, increasing transit speeds, and using different maintenance schemes are other potential options to increase the availability of ships for deployment in peacetime. These options may offer opportunities for the Navy to achieve national security objectives more efficiently as it operates with a smaller force structure and possibly smaller budgets.

The Navy's ability to achieve and sustain a desired force size is affected by the service lives of existing ships. Navy cruisers and destroyers have historically been retired by 30 years of service and frigates by 22 years of service. In recent force planning for ships, the Navy uses notional estimated service lives of 35 years for Aegis-capable cruisers and all current classes of destroyers and 24- to 32-year service lives for most Oliver Hazard Perry-class frigates retiring after fiscal year 1999.

In March 2005 Adm. Vernon Clark, the chief of naval operations, abandoned his goal of building the Navy to a 375-ship fleet. New procedures like keeping ships deployed overseas while rotating the crews mean the Navy will need no more than 325 ships and possibly as few as 260. The rate of building new destroyers would not support more than one shipyard at acceptable costs. The plan envisions building about 1.4 destroyers annually, but never two a year. Building those ships in two yards would cost an extra $300 million per ship.

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