500 ship Navy is a bit of a pipe dream

ATLANTIC OCEAN (Oct. 1, 2020) An F/A-18E Super Hornet attached to the “Wildcats” of Strike Fighter Squadron (VFA) 131 launches from the flight deck aboard the Nimitz-class aircraft carrier USS Dwight D. Eisenhower (CVN 69). Ike is operating in the Atlantic Ocean in support of naval operations to maintain maritime stability and security in order to ensure access, deter aggression and defend U.S., allied and partner interests. (U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 3rd Class Cameron Pinske)

News that Defense Secretary Esper is calling for a 500 ship Navy is good news. We’ve had a Navy too small trying to do too much for some time now, and its been ignored while we stayed focused on fighting terrorism. This resulted in a lot of extended deployments, poorly executed maintenance periods and burned out ships and Sailors.

But while a 500 ship Navy would help, we have a long way to go to get there. When policy makers discuss ships, it’s as if the numbers of ship is what matters. But there is a lot more to it:

  • Personnel. The last time we had 500 ships was in 1991. Since then, we’ve drawn down Navy personnel to about 330,000 to cover about 270 ships. Essentially, to get to 500, we’d have to double the number of Sailors. That would make the Navy larger than any of the other services, and a massive jump in personnel costs.
  • Shipyards. We can’t fix the ships we have now fast enough. Nearly doubling ships would mean we need more shipyards to build and maintain them. Given that American shipbuilding is almost exclusively government, we don’t have a great civilian infrastructure to turn to. So we’re either building new yards (expensive) or building in foreign countries (sending money overseas).
  • Support. Ships have to communicate, and rely extensively on satellite systems, which we don’t have enough of now. Combined with a variety of other support, and the price adds up quickly.

We can get away from personnel costs with more unmanned systems, but unmanned systems still require humans, and considerably smarter people to run them, which the military struggles to keep in, because other companies like Amazon will throw a lot of money at unmanned operators. This only gets worse as AI and unmanned systems spread in the commercial sector.

We’re getting to a tipping point with the Navy. We expect ships to be everywhere all the time, but we don’t have the ships, infrastructure or people to do that in peacetime, let alone war. We’re smart to recognize that, but its going to take a lot more than wishful thinking to get to a sustainable fleet level.

As a side note, the above picture was labeled “Rosy Outlook” on defense.gov. Most appropriate I think.

This post represents the views of the author and not those of the Department of Defense, Department of the Navy, or any other government agency.

2 thoughts on “500 ship Navy is a bit of a pipe dream

  1. A 500 ship navy is just a pipe dream. The way the U.S. military procures equipment is flawed, and that prevents it from getting to the goal. The American military’s mindset is to shoot for the moon technologically to leapfrog adversaries. That results in ships that are too expensive, take to long to develop, and thus don’t get made. A design on a drawing board won’t win any wars. Take that stealth destroyer as a prime example. And they do exactly the same thing with airplanes.

    A policy of evolutionary advancements to existing designs makes much more sense to me. Taking what you already have and build on it and enhance it would be a lot cheaper and easier. And you can make a lot more of them while you are at it.

    Another problem is the navy’s habit of trying to fight the last war. A perfect illustration was at the beginning of WW2 when the mindset was to have big battleships with big cannons to shoot at other battleships. Turns out that aircraft carriers were what was needed. I’m not a naval expert by any means, but what I think is needed is a large fleet of fast smaller ships equipped with missiles.

  2. The basic problem is the federal deficit. A year ago it was $1 trillion, and this year, because of covid, it will be about $3 trillion. Long run, it is guaranteed to stay above $1 trillion and grow. Even at currently historicallly low interest rates, very soon the annual interest payment on the accumulated debt will be the largest single item in the federal budget. It is already larger than the defense budget, even with the war-fighting appropriations counted in. Also, this year we are in a recession with GDP down for the year at least 5% (maybe 10%), and tax revenues at all levels down sharply.

    The ever growing deficit and interest payments will squeeze everything else out of the budget. The defense budget will be cut no matter who is elected in November. If it is Biden, the defense budget will be sharply cut.

    In the near future, the Navy will be cut to 200 ships. The legal requirement for 11 aircraft carriers will have to nullified. The Army and Air Force will also be cut, and most of our troops overseas, including those in Europe, Japan, and South Korea will be brought home and disbanded.

    What the Russians and Chinese will do is anyone’s guess. In the best scenario they also disarm. I wouldn’t be on it. In any event, Europe, the Middle East (including Israel), Japan, and South Korea are on their own.

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