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.
With its unassuming foreign policy, fin de siècle America needed nothing so grandiose as a two-power standard. North America, observed Mahan, occupied a “central position” between seaborne threats from Europe and Asia. If the United States had “an enemy in the Atlantic and one in the Pacific,” it must have “a fleet stronger than either the one or the other singly.” He saw little point in investing in a navy strong enough to vanquish two opponents simultaneously. Accordingly, U.S. leaders ought to station the entire U.S. Navy battle fleet on the coast under greatest threat. If Washington guessed wrong – if an antagonist made trouble on the opposite coast – the fleet would have to “swing” into the other ocean to put matters to rights.
Mahan’s chief worry was that politicians would divide up a middling-sized navy into standing Atlantic and Pacific fleets, creating two lesser fleets and in the process forfeiting the advantages of concentrated naval might. Partitioning a navy built to the one-power standard, that is, would leave each contingent weaker than its hypothetical enemy. Russia had fragmented its navy among Baltic, Black Sea, and Far Eastern fleets before fighting Japan (1904-1905). The Russian Navy paid the price for St. Petersburg’s strategic illiteracy. Wreckage from its Pacific and Baltic fleets littered the bottom of the Yellow Sea and the Tsushima Strait following disastrous encounters with the Japanese Combined Fleet, which was inferior to the combined Russian Navy but superior to every detachment hurled at it.
In 1914, at the outbreak of World War I, Mahan, ex-President Theodore Roosevelt, and Assistant Secretary of the Navy Franklin Roosevelt debated where to station the fleet. The three sea-power proponents agreed that it should concentrate in the Pacific. Their rationale: Imperial Germany, one potential foe, had all it could handle with Britain’s Royal Navy lying across the North Sea. North America, then, faced little peril from the east. But to the west, Japan might take advantage of European powers’ distraction with war to snap up territory. Tokyo might do so at U.S. expense. Better to accept risk in the Atlantic than neglect the Pacific.
Today’s strategic questions represent a throwback of sorts to the debate among Mahan, TR, and FDR. For Mahan the benchmark for naval preparedness was “the estimated force which the strongest probable enemy can bring against you,” factoring in not only the size and capacity of his maritime forces, but also political entanglements that siphoned his forces to far-flung parts of the world. A glance at the map reveals two prospective adversaries for the United States and its allies, namely China and Iran. Both worry mainly about managing their own surroundings. Both can mass forces close to home. Neither has compelling interests that disperse its military forces to faraway theatres. And the chances of their ganging up on the U.S. Navy are remote.
So the U.S. Navy must prepare to face – or face down in crises short of war – a single opponent fighting with full force near its own shores. And it must do so with diminishing resources. As the Carl Vinson example implies, naval leaders and their political masters must be more choosy about priorities amid fiscal austerity.
Here’s how things shape up geo-strategically. Cold War theatres like the Atlantic Ocean and the Mediterranean Sea no longer appear that menacing, while the Western Pacific and the Indian Ocean could witness exciting times indeed. U.S. leaders now look to Asia, but not wholeheartedly – yet. Navies are can-do services. They find it hard to part with longstanding habits and commitments. Washington’s 2006 Quadrennial Defense Review prodded the navy in that direction, directing the service to reposition 60 percent of its nuclear-powered attack submarines to the Pacific Ocean. That realignment is now complete.
But the time may come when U.S. political and military leaders must make the painful choice to concentrate the whole battle fleet there, embracing anew the logic of the Roosevelts and Mahan. Safe expanses to North America’s east, turbulent waters to its west, and an ever-shrinking fleet: the case for a one-power standard looks more compelling by the day.
James Holmes is an associate professor of strategy at the US Naval War College. The views voiced here are his alone.