The world’s oceans and sea have never played a more vital role in the security and prosperity of our nation and the majority of the world’s population. Over 90 percent of global trade flows via maritime shipping lanes, and 99 percent of all international data (phone, texts and internet) are transmitted via undersea fiber optic cables.
The U.S. Navy provides a continuous global presence that enables our nation to respond quickly to crises around the world. These operations can range from humanitarian and disaster relief assistance—such as the current post-Hurricane Maria operations in the Caribbean—to support of counterterrorism combat operations in Libya and Syria.
The Navy’s peacetime forward presence also assures our allies and friends, deters potential adversaries and ensures the free flow of commerce and communications along the world’s sea lanes
A scan of the daily news headlines reveals ample evidence that maritime security threats are rapidly increasing, especially in the world’s critical geographic regions of concern: Europe, the Middle East and Asia.
An aggressive and increasingly belligerent Russia presents a very real threat to stability in Europe. Despite a declining economy, Russia continues to prioritize the modernization of its nuclear arsenal and its submarine force. Its recent military activities in Ukraine and Syria have demonstrated advanced capabilities including highly effective information warfare and cyberwarfare operations.
In Asia, a defiant North Korea continues to develop long-range ballistic missiles and ever-smaller nuclear warheads that may have the ability to reach U.S. targets. China, too, has assumed an aggressive posture, building up and militarizing islands in disputed territorial waters in the South China Sea. In addition, its naval forces conduct reckless operations in attempts to intimidate neighboring countries such as the Philippines and Japan from exercising their right to freely navigate in international waters.
Iran’s ballistic missile program and dogged pursuit of advanced military capabilities, coupled with its enduring support of terrorist organizations, present the most significant security challenge in the Middle East to the United States, its regional allies and the free flow of maritime commerce through the Strait of Hormuz.
The rapid maturation and proliferation of advanced military capabilities has increased the maritime security threat from nonstate actors as well. Although unsuccessful, the October 2016 cruise missile attack against the USS Mason by Iranian-backed and armed Houthi rebels in Yemen clearly illustrates the reality of such threats.
Can today’s Navy meet the ever-increasing operational demands and deter aggressive regional threats? Assessing the fleet across three key areas—capacity, capability, and readiness—The Heritage Foundation’s 2018 Index of U.S. Military Strength evaluates our naval forces as only “marginally” up to the task.
The Navy’s capacity is measured in the number of ships and aircraft in the fleet. Heritage’s benchmark for the minimum U.S. military capacity is based on the forces required to successfully engage and prevail in two simultaneous major regional conflicts, such as combat operations in Korea and the Middle East. Based on this standard, Heritage assesses that the U.S. Navy requires a minimum of 346 ships, including thirteen aircraft carriers and fifty amphibious warfare ships. Unfortunately, today the U.S. fleet only has 279 ships, with eleven aircraft carriers and thirty-two amphibious warships.
The fleet today now has fewer ships than at any time since the beginning of World War I. To cope with this shrinkage, the Navy has pushed its ships and sailors to the limit to maintain over ninety-five ships continuously forward deployed around the globe. Recent collisions by Seventh Fleet warships have killed seventeen U.S sailors—a stark warning that the U.S. Navy is too small and stretched too thin to meet its day-to-day operational demands, let alone surge in response to a major regional conflict or crisis.
The emergent deployment of several Navy ships in support of Hurricane Irma and Maria disaster relief operations has stressed an already strained fleet force-planning schedule. For example, USS Wasp was scheduled to deploy to Japan when it was diverted to the Caribbean in late August; the amphibious ship she is still supporting relief operations in Puerto Rico. Wasp’s delay will in turn postpone the return to the United States and scheduled long-term maintenance of the USS Bonhomme Richard , further adding to the Navy’s maintenance backlog.
With a battle forces fleet that is sixty-seven ships short of the two MRC benchmark and is unable to adequately surge in response to maritime crises, the Heritage Foundation assesses the Navy’s capacity as marginal.
Heritage quantifies the Navy’s capability by measuring: the age of its ships and aircraft; whether key capabilities are met with legacy or modern platforms, payloads and weapons systems; the size of modernization programs, and the overall financial and technological health of modernization programs.
The Navy’s most successful surface ship program, the Arleigh Burke-class guided missile destroyer, was designed over thirty years ago. Although significant improvements have been made via upgrades, the most recent version of its air and missile defense radar system is reaching the size, weight, space and power limitations of the hull design. The Littoral Combat Ship program has overcome some of its early problems—e.g., cost growth, design and construction issues—but evolving maritime threats raise significant concerns about its survivability in contested environments. While the Navy will soon be soliciting proposals for a new frigate program with increased survivability and lethality capabilities, it won’t award the initial contract until 2020.