Navy must be everywhere

Staff Columnist

“A recent mishap with the USS Carl Vinson is a case study for rebuilding the fleet to about 350 ships.”

(John Lehman in The U.S. Navy Must Be Everywhere at Once, The Wall Street Journal, Friday, April 28, 2017)


“The aircraft carrier USS Carl Vinson was steaming toward North Korea, the Trump administration insisted two weeks ago.  Except that it wasn’t.  A Navy press photo showed it thousands of miles away, near Indonesia, and heading south.  The official explanation was that the Carl Vinson had to complete a scheduled joint exercise with Australia before turning back to deal with the imminent threat to world peace.  The error was compounded by President Trump’s  statement that he would be sending submarines ‘far more powerful than an aircraft carrier’ – which is of course absurd.”

John Lehman was Secretary of the Navy under President Reagan.

“This episode is a small symptom of America’s weakened Navy.  Today, as in the 1920s and ‘30s, Washington has forgotten Teddy Roosevelt’s advice to speak softly and carry a big stick.  Instead the U.S. lashes out at adversaries with ultimatums , sanctions and embargoes while disarming.  Although all branches of the military went through budget and personnel cuts under the Obama administration, the Navy fared the worst.  Today the American fleet is less than half the size it was under President Reagan.

Two independent bipartisan commissions have called for the fleet to be increased from its roughly 270 ships to 350, a number President Trump has said he supports.  The Navy’s 2016 Force Structure Assessment calls for 355 ships.  These proposals weigh budget constraints; otherwise the target would be higher.

During the 1960s the fleet numbered above 800.  But after the Vietnam

War, the U.S. sought a ‘peace dividend’ and ordered the Navy to do more with less.  Historically, a sailor’s maximum deployment was six months away from family in any 18-month period.  Today deployments  stretch to nine months or longer. Skilled sailors are being worn out and many of the best are leaving.  We have too few ships on too many crucial missions. Without the funding to keep them in repair, they deploy without being combat-ready and are eventually  forced into early retirement.  Many of the Navy’s combat aircraft are unable to fly without awaiting parts and repair.”

(Your Correspondent once spent 14 months deployed with a Mobile Construction Battalion on Grand Turk and South Caicos not so far from here – in 1958, in the good-old days.  We lived in tents!))

Secretary Lehman adds: “Thankfully, Mr. Trump has promised to bolster America’s defenses as Reagan did in the 1980s. Let us hope for a bipartisan defense recovery.  The first priority must be for the White House to settle on a national strategy to replace the ad hoc decision- making  of the past 20 years.

As in the Reagan years, there are opportunities to rebuild rapidly.  At least eight Perry-class frigates could be reactivated, along with a similar number of Aegis cruisers and a half-dozen supply ships.  These combat craft were retired early, some at only half their service life.  Outfitting them with updated weapons could create immediate work at ports on all three coasts.

The next step is to reform the overgrown defense bureaucracy and overhaul the Pentagon’s dysfunctional procurement process. The Navy needs to take authority back from the bureaucracy, end the culture of constant design changes and gold-plating, and bring back fixed-price competition.

Recall the development of the Polaris nuclear-missile system in the late 1950s.  The whole package – a nuclear submarine, a solid fuel missile, an underwater launch system, a nuclear warhead and a guidance system – went from drawing board to deployment in four years.”  (My Son, a nuclear submariner served at sea in USS U.S. Grant.  I served much later in the follow-on Trident program in construction of the base in the State of Washington (the Base part of’ the BOAT, the BULLET, and the BASE’).

I mention these real folks to put faces on real experienced people – now all retired.

More:  “The Navy is also short on aircraft, with roughly half the number needed to maintain even the current force structure.  The Pentagon should make the F-35 compete against the F-18 to establish the optimum – and lowest cost mix of both aircraft.”

Finally from Lehman: “ President Reagan showed that 90% of the benefits from restoring American command of the seas are reaped immediately.  President Trump will learn the same.  Russia, with its professional but small one-carrier navy, cannot challenge a rebuilt U.S. Navy.  The Chinese are at least two decades away from matching American capabilities.  With renewed  commit to naval and military superiority, American diplomacy will instantly regain credibility.”

All tough words from an experienced Secretary of the Navy and Naval Reserve Officer.


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