Quantity Means Presence… and Presence Matters
The Obama Administration’s decision to scrap as many as eight older carriers rather than refurbishing them and keeping them in reserve has been a serious blow to the Navy, but it was only the most visible blow. The real problem has been a decline in the Navy’s force structure over the last 25 years. When one considers that 90% of the world’s trade travels via sea, the implications of a declining United States Navy are disconcerting, to say the least.
In 1989, the United States Navy had a total of 592 ships – thanks to the Reagan defense build-up. According to the U.S. Navy’s website on historic force levels, that figure included 14 carriers, 4 battleships, 40 cruisers, 68 destroyers, 100 frigates, 61 amphibious ships, 99 attack submarines, 33 ballistic missile submarines, and 137 auxiliaries.
During the 1990s, the Navy retired eighteen older guided-missile cruisers of the Leahy and Belknap classes, 23 Charles F. Adams-class guided missile destroyers and ten Coontz-class guided-missile destroyers, a total of 51 ships. These ships were planned to be replaced by the Arleigh Burke-class destroyers, which ultimately totaled 62 vessels. This was not bad in and of itself, but the problem came later in the 1990s.
The United States proceeded to retire the four Iowa-class battleships, 21 short-hulled Oliver Hazard Perry-class frigates and the 46 Knox-class frigates. These ships were not replaced, although the Iowa-class stayed in reserve. The planned replacement for the Knox-class ships, the NFR-90 – a joint program with a number of NATO allies – was cancelled at the end of the Cold War. Nine nuclear-powered cruisers were also retired and sent to the scrapyards – particularly devastating as these cruisers could keep pace with the Navy’s nuclear-powered carriers. The retirements sped up, with the 31 Spruance-class destroyers leaving the fleet. Most of the Spruance-class destroyers were scrapped or sunk as targets.
The submarine force took a hit as well. The Navy halted the advanced Seawolf-class submarine at three units in favor of the Virginia-class submarines – and rapidly retired not just the older Permit and Sturgeon classes, but also many of the Los Angeles-class submarines not equipped with the Mk 45 vertical launch system. That sent the submarine force tumbling from 99 in 1989 to 53 in 2007.
By 2001, George W. Bush had inherited a Navy that during the tenure of his two predecessors had declined from 1989’s 592-ship total to 316 ships. After 9/11, though, the Navy continued to decline to a low of 271 deployable ships in 2015. The Navy now is less than 50% of the size of the 1989 force that reflected Reagan’s 600-ship Navy – and it is the Navy’s lowest ship total since 1916.
Now, while the new ships are very good – there is still a huge problem. These ships cannot be in multiple locations simultaneously. The good news is that this is reversible. Part of the approach has to be the continued refitting and overhauling of the current surface combatant fleet, centered on 22 Ticonderoga-class cruisers and 61 Arleigh Burke-class destroyers. But that alone will not be enough. The Navy needs to resume Zumwalt production – preferably to 32-ship class originally planned. But the Zumwalt alone won’t give the Navy enough hulls in the water.
The Navy also could build up its numbers by buying two ship designs from NATO allies: The Alvaro de Bazan-class guided missile frigate from Spain, and the Absalon-class support ship from Denmark. The Bazan-class frigates would have been a worthy replacement for the Perry-class frigates – and using them to replace the Perrys on a one-for-one basis would have probably knocked the $600 million per ship cost down. At $225 million a copy, the Absalon-class ships would have been worthy replacements for the Knox-class ships.
As a bonus, the Danish Navy got the Absalon-class which packs a five-inch gun and a standard load of 36 RIM-162 Evolved Sea Sparrow Missiles and 16 RGM-84 Harpoon anti-ship missiles plus the ability to carry two MH-60R helicopters in about a year and a half. The Bazan-class frigates took about two years to build, but offer a five-inch gun, a 48-cell Mk 41 vertical launch system, eight Harpoons, and a single MH-60R helicopter.
The total cost for 52 Bazan-class frigates and 48 Absalon-class ships would, at the unit costs the Spanish and Danish navies paid, be about $42 billion, or about a third of the Agriculture Department’s budget for Fiscal Year 2015. This does not take into account, of course, savings from buying in bulk, or the fact that the shipbuilding program could be spread out over multiple years. In short, those 100 frigates and support ships could be one of the best national-security bargains – and the Navy could have them on the high seas within a decade.
That would be a huge bargain.