A recent mishap with the USS Carl Vinson is a case study for rebuilding the fleet to about 350 ships.
The aircraft carrier USS Carl Vinson was steaming toward North Korea, the Trump administration insisted two weeks ago. Except that it wasn’t. A Navy press photo showed it thousands of miles away, near Indonesia, and heading south. The official explanation was that the Carl Vinson had to complete a scheduled joint exercise with Australia before turning back to deal with the imminent threat to world peace. The error was compounded by President Trump’s statement that he would be sending submarines “far more powerful than an aircraft carrier”—which is of course absurd.
This episode is a small symptom of America’s weakened Navy. Today, as in the 1920s and ’30s, Washington has forgotten Teddy Roosevelt’s advice to speak softly and carry a big stick. Instead the U.S. lashes out at adversaries with ultimatums, sanctions and embargoes while disarming. Although all branches of the military went through budget and personnel cuts under the Obama administration, the Navy fared the worst. Today the American fleet is less than half the size it was under President Reagan.
Two independent bipartisan commissions have called for the fleet to be increased from its roughly 270 ships to 350, a number President Trump has said he supports. The Navy’s 2016 Force Structure Assessment calls for 355 ships. These proposals weigh budget constraints; otherwise the target would be higher.
During the 1960s the fleet numbered above 800. But after the Vietnam War, the U.S. sought a “peace dividend” and ordered the Navy to do more with less. Historically, a sailor’s maximum deployment was six months away from family in any 18-month period. Today deployments stretch to nine months or longer. Skilled sailors are being worn out, and many of the best are leaving. We have too few ships on too many crucial missions. Without the funding to keep them in repair, they deploy without being combat-ready and are eventually forced into early retirement. Many of the Navy’s combat aircraft are unable to fly without awaiting parts and repair.
Thankfully, Mr. Trump has promised to bolster America’s defenses as Reagan did in the 1980s. Let us hope for a bipartisan defense recovery. The first priority must be for the White House to settle on a national strategy to replace the ad hoc decision-making of the past 20 years. Then the new Navy secretary and the chief of naval operations can create a comprehensive naval strategy to match. This process will provide a framework to prioritize Navy and Marine programs.
As in the Reagan years, there are opportunities to rebuild rapidly. At least eight Perry-class frigates could be reactivated, along with a similar number of Aegis cruisers and a half-dozen supply ships. These combat craft were retired early, some at only half their service life. Outfitting them with updated weapons could create immediate work at ports on all three coasts.
The next step is to reform the overgrown defense bureaucracy and overhaul the Pentagon’s dysfunctional procurement process. According to the Government Accountability Office, cost overruns have ballooned to more than $450 billion over the past two decades. The Navy needs to take authority back from the bureaucracy, end the culture of constant design changes and gold-plating, and bring back fixed-price competition.
Recall the development of the Polaris nuclear-missile system in the late 1950s. The whole package—a nuclear submarine, a solid-fuel missile, an underwater launch system, a nuclear warhead and a guidance system—went from the drawing board to deployment in four years (and using slide rules). Today, according to the Defense Business Board, the average development timeline for much less complex weapons is 22.5 years.
A case in point is the Ford-class aircraft carrier. The program is two years delayed and $2.4 billion over budget. The ship was designed to include 12 new technologies, such as electric instead of steam catapults that had not yet been developed. Many of these systems don’t work after 10 years of trying, and the ship will be delivered to the Navy without fully functional radar and unable to launch or recover aircraft. Yet the defense firms involved still profit under cost-plus contracts.
The three stealthy Zumwalt-class destroyers—they are really heavy cruisers—are another example. The defense bureaucracy produced a seagoing camel costing three times its original estimate and delivered with questionable seaworthiness and without functional radar or a reliable propulsion system. The program should be terminated and the three contracted ships kept purely for special operations.
The Navy urgently needs to replace the Perry-class frigates, built in the 1980s and now all retired. Instead of designing a ship from scratch, the Navy could update the Perry plans to include modern sonar, radar and missiles. Or it could adapt one of two European frigates for American construction. The 26 small coastal LCS ships now under contract are enough. That design cannot be modified into a frigate, so the program should be terminated.
The Navy is also short on aircraft, with roughly half the number needed to maintain even the current force structure. The Pentagon should make the F-35 compete against the F-18 to establish the optimum—and lowest-cost—mix of both aircraft. In the future, drones will play an important role on carriers and may evolve into the dominant system. But that day is not yet here.
President Reagan showed that 90% of the benefits from restoring American command of the seas are reaped immediately. President Trump will learn the same. Russia, with its professional but small one-carrier navy, cannot challenge a rebuilt U.S. Navy. The Chinese are at least two decades away from matching American capabilities. With renewed commitment to naval and military superiority, American diplomacy will instantly regain credibility.
Mr. Lehman, secretary of the Navy under President Reagan, is the author of the forthcoming “Oceans Ventured, Oceans Gained” (W.W. Norton).
Appeared in the Apr. 28, 2017, print edition.