12 Carriers and 350 Ships: A Strategic Path Forward from President Elect Donald Trump
President Elect Donald Trump, correctly understanding the current strategic environment, is committed to building a 350 ship Navy. This will set aside thirty years of steady declines in the size of the Navy and put those who would make themselves the United States’ enemy on notice that the “irreplaceable nation” has picked up the mantle of leadership that it so recently cast off in an attempt to become more “normal” and less “dangerous.” However, while 350 ships may seem huge in comparison to the battle force of 272 ships we have today; it actually represents the bare minimum that is actually required to maintain presence in the 18 maritime regions where the United States has critical national interests.
The last time the US Navy had 350 ships in its inventory was in early 1998, at which time it had twelve carriers, 30 cruisers, 53 destroyers, 40 frigates and 70 fast attack submarines. Five years later the Navy crashed through the 300 ship mark on its way to the 272 ships it has today, which includes 10 carriers, 22 cruisers, 62 destroyers, no frigates and 54 fast attack submarines. Much of this decline has been driven by the fact that individual ship costs have gone up owing to new advanced technologies while the Navy’s ship construction spending account has remained flat, driving the number of ships that can be purchased downward.
In addition, the Department of Defense’s budget was slashed by nearly $80 billion per year from its 2011 projections due to President Obama placing a higher priority on domestic spending and the impact of the 2011 Budget Control Act sequester provisions. Both of these factors were disastrous for the nation’s defense and the fact that the Navy’s leadership was able to keep as many new ships under contract as it did, despite pressures from the Secretary of Defense, was nothing less than heroic. The Navy’s budget today should be around $190 billion per year according to the last threat-based budget proposed by then Secretary of Defense Robert Gates in 2011, but instead it struggles with a $155 billion budget imposed by the administration he left in disappointment. These downward driving budgetary pressures, as well as the increasingly evident erosion of American prestige in the international arena, would clearly have continued under a Clinton administration that presented itself as an Obama third term. These factors led to discussions, including a recent strategic choices war-game, that proposed tradeoffs within the present Navy budget to help increase the Navy’s ship count in an attempt to increase presence and slow the disintegration of the international system of free trade. These discussions, which I either willingly participated in or led, included proposals to cut the overall carrier force in an attempt to grow the overall Navy while staying within the current Obama administration sequestered budget limits. Fortunately, those discussions ended with the election of Donald J. Trump and the retention of Republican majorities in the House and the Senate. We now have a President and a Congress committed to a “peace through strength navy” that will once again allow the United States to maintain global security and stability on the seas.
The problems identified with aircraft carriers can be corrected within the Trump Navy plan. The issue of the carrier’s costs as a proportion of the Navy’s shipbuilding budget (one Ford class carrier is nearly the equivalent of an entire year’s shipbuilding budget) can be addressed both by increasing the shipbuilding budget to the level it would be at had the government continuously adjusted it for inflation over the past fifteen years, and by returning to a schedule wherein carriers are produced every four years rather than every five, a decision that the Navy made to save money in the short term but only increased the net cost of the ships over the long run. Changing the production schedule will also have the additional benefit of getting the force back to 12 carriers in a shorter time, a move that is critical if we are to take pressures off the carrier force and reduce their deployments from the 9-12 months periods of recent years back to the six month deployments of the Cold War. Additionally, the Navy should also look at technical challenges with catapults and arresting gear within the Ford carrier program itself in order to drive out inefficiencies and drive down costs.
The second problem was that of defending the carrier in the new anti-access / area denial environments that the Navy increasingly found itself in around the world. A 272 ship Navy simply does not have enough cruisers and destroyers to surround and protect each of the carriers it deploys, but a 350 ship Navy can generate enough platforms to protect a twelve carrier strike force. However, the key vulnerability of our carriers to attack is driven not by the threat or even the ships that surround them, but rather it is a product of the present composition of the carrier’s air wing, which forces these large capital vessels to operate ahistorically close to land. Changing the composition of the carrier’s embarked air wing is the key improvement the Navy can make in the near term to guarantee the success of its carrier strike groups in the future.