With U.S. naval leaders more choosy amid fiscal austerity, a two-ocean strategy may be a luxury the U.S. can no longer afford. What does it mean for the Pacific?
A couple of weeks back, my first ship (briefly, from long, long ago), the aircraft carrier USS Carl Vinson – last seen hosting an NCAA basketball game on its flight deck in honor of Veterans’ Day, with the First Family in attendance – deployed overseas for seven months. It did so only five months after returning from its last seven-month cruise. Navy officials depicted the quick turnaround as part of the service’s “Fleet Response Plan” scheme designed to place more of the fleet at regional commanders’ disposal. Around a third of the U.S. Navy is fully combat-ready at any given time. The plan’s goal is to boost that to two-thirds.
Uh-oh. That sounds nice, but the devil’s in the details. At its inception back in 2004, the Navy portrayed the Fleet Response Plan as a temporary expedient, a way to surge additional combat power in times of trouble. In atypical times, in other words. The Navy flexed the new arrangement that year. Seven of the Navy’s 11 carrier strike groups took to the world’s oceans during Operation “Summer Pulse.” Summer Pulse constituted an impressive display of operational readiness. But even the maneuver’s title – referring to a “pulse” – indicated that such deployments were never meant to become routine.
This is a distinction with a difference. A hoary yet sound maxim holds that the Navy needs three hulls to keep one on foreign station. Under the standard rotation, a ship deploys for six months, undergoes six months of rest and major overhaul afterward, and then launches into six months of work-ups culminating in its next cruise. Lather, rinse, repeat. That’s a sustainable operating rhythm. It upholds operational readiness while keeping wear-and-tear on hardware to manageable levels and letting sailors, marines, and their families live bearable lives. The third of the fleet working up for deployment can absorb occasional short-term surges, as the Fleet Response Plan (as originally conceived) envisioned.
The Carl Vinson’s recent history indicates that this system is under stress. Upkeep, training, and crew R&R were crammed into less than half the time normally allotted, while the forward deployments bracketing that abbreviated down-time exceeded the usual length. At 284 ships – the fewest in raw numerical terms since before the First World War – the U.S. Navy fleet may simply be doing too much. The submarine force, for example, already fulfills only 50 to 60 percent of customers’ – i.e., regional combatant commanders’ – demand for its services. The story is largely the same in the surface and aviation communities. Ever-increasing demands on finite means generate a helter-skelter operating tempo. Ultimately, the demand may outpace available ships, aircraft, and human capital, wearing out materiel before its time while driving down recruitment and reenlistment rates. The quality of the fleet – measured not only in equipment readiness but in human standards of seamanship and tactical acumen – will suffer.
The chances of boosting the size of the fleet appear slim in austere fiscal times. It’s more likely to dwindle further. If it does, missions may have to contract with it to restore some equilibrium to fleet operations. Indeed, one gets the sense that the Navy’s “two-ocean strategy” of the past seven decades is being repealed – if not by conscious choice, then by dint of heavy demand, soaring shipbuilding costs, and the resultant downward pressure on the fleet’s size. Congress and the Franklin Roosevelt administration passed the “Two Ocean Navy Act” in 1940 in order to confront two hostile sea powers, Imperial Japan and Nazi Germany. In effect, the United States built a second navy so it could keep one self-sufficient battle fleet in the Atlantic Ocean and another in the Pacific. FDR & co. inaugurated a strategic approach that endures to this day yet looks increasingly perishable.
If the United States can no longer afford two navies, it may have to resurrect an older tradition for managing commitments, assets, and risk. Naval historian Alfred Thayer Mahan was a founding father of this tradition. Writing a century ago, before successive world wars and a Cold War impelled the United States to construct a “navy second to none,” Capt. Mahan urged Washington to base its naval strategy on a “one-power standard.” British history was his guide. During its imperial heyday, Great Britain sized its Royal Navy by a “two-power standard.” That is, it maintained a navy equivalent to the next two strongest navies combined. It did so lest powerful rivals combine forces, as they had in past conflagrations such as the War of American Independence and the Napoleonic Wars. British commanders trusted to superior seamanship and gunnery to make the difference in encounters with the likes of the French and Spanish navies.
Photo Credit: U.S. Navy