The Obama administration’s cuts to the U.S. Navy imperil critical missions

Robert O'Brien Former US Representative to the UN
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The United States Navy is drastically shrinking due to the serious cuts the Obama administration is making to the shipbuilding budget.  As set forth in the Navy’s Quadrennial Defense Review, the service requires a minimum of 313 ships to accomplish its many missions.  Today, however, the Navy is operating just 286 warships.  Given President Obama’s plans to further cut the defense budget, the number of ships in the Navy is certain to continue to decline below even the current number with very negative consequences for the United States; one area that is significantly impacted is America’s amphibious assault capacity.

In May, the Senate Subcommittee on Seapower held a little-noticed hearing on the Navy’s ship building program.  Based on testimony at the hearing, it is clear that the cuts in America’s fleet will continue.  The budget is $4 billion per year short of the funds necessary to build the ships called for in the Navy’s 30-year ship building plan.  One distressing result of the Navy’s decline is that the United States Marine Corps’ amphibious assault capability is also being seriously degraded.

Marine amphibious assaults are often associated with the World War II battles of Guadalcanal, Tarawa, Guam, Iwo Jima and Okinawa among other islands.  Landing at Inchon, Korea in September 1950, Marines proved that the doctrine of amphibious assault was still viable and necessary to the security of the United States and its allies.  Marines have hit the beaches in Lebanon, The Dominican Republic and Somalia and been positioned off shore in many other crises; their presence deterring those that would harm America or her friends. During the First Gulf War, Marines aboard ships were successfully used as a diversion to tie down significant numbers of Iraqi troops in defensive positions on the coast, while other Marines attacked from Saudi Arabia.

Projecting power by landing Marines on foreign shores remains as important today as it was in the last century.  Military planners believe that most American troops in the foreseeable future will be engaged in the “arc of instability” — the regions around the earth’s mid section where developing nations and failed states are threatened by terrorism, insurgencies, natural disasters and humanitarian crises.  The ability to launch sea-based operations by Marines in such situations is critical because existing American bases, suitable airfields, and logistical support facilities are rarely available in these areas.

The amphibious vessels used by the Marines to get to shore from sea are specialized warships designed to land and support ground forces on enemy territory.  Such ships allow for “forcible entry” into a hostile environment.  The most recognizable of these warships — Amphibious Assault Ships — resemble small aircraft carriers hosting helicopters to transport Marines to shore and back them up with robust close air support once they have landed. Marine Corps Commandant General James Conway has been clear that to support the deployment of the two Marine Expeditionary Brigades, the Corps requires 17 amphibious ships per brigade.  Because of maintenance and training needs in addition to deployments, at least 38 amphibious ships are necessary for the Navy and Marines to meet amphibious mission requirements.

Currently, the Navy only operates 28 of these specialized ships, well short of the required number.  Assuming it finds the money in its budget, the Navy’s long term plans call for a fleet of 31 amphibious ships, still below the bare minimum necessary for the Corps to carry out its missions.  Treading lightly on the administration, the Navy has diplomatically stated that it has “departed from the desired force structure” for the Marines “due to resource constraints.”  The shortage of ships, however, has real world consequences for our men and women in uniform.  For example, if we deploy a Marine brigade with 15 instead of 17 ships, we leave over 38,000 square feet of their combat equipment at home.

Cutting the Navy’s budget so that key warships are decommissioned without replacements, limits the option of the United States to deal with a dangerous world.  The ability to put our Marines ashore to respond to critical contingencies — war, terrorism, evacuation of American citizens, humanitarian or natural disaster relief — is being compromised.  This trend must be reversed immediately.  We must stop plans to decommission any active Tarawa or Wasp class Amphibious Assault Ships now.  The administration’s cuts will have lifelong negative consequences for all Americans and Congress should immediately act to reverse this dangerous trend.

Robert C. O’Brien is the Managing Partner of the Los Angeles office of Arent Fox LLP.  He served as a United States Representative to the 60th Session of the United Nations General Assembly.