Downsizing or disarmament?
The August issue of the Navy League's Sea Power magazine features an article titled "A 230-Ship Navy?" It should be required reading for all who are concerned about the course Congress, the White House, and the Defense Department are charting not only for the Navy, but for the other armed services as well.
A generation ago, the administration's goal was to maintain a 600-ship Navy, built around a fleet of 15 modern aircraft carriers. Today, for all practical purposes, that goal has been halved in total numbers of ships, and by a third in fleet carriers. Even more severe cuts are on the table to help pay for the present administration's hugely expensive domestic agenda. Everyone with half a brain should have seen this coming. It is always the armed forces that pay first, though it is hard to remember a time this was so when our country was engaged in two wars, wars of doubtful outcome.
Sea Power cites a little noticed June 11th report by the "Sustainable Defense Task Force," a bipartisan study group of academics and specialists in the defense community commissioned by Rep. Barney Frank, D-Mass., in cooperation with Rep. Walter Jones, R-N.C., Rep. Ron Paul, R-Texas , and Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Ore. Failure to follow the general direction of the task force's recommendations, Frank warned, would mean that "every other [budgetary] issue will suffer." Rep. Frank is chairman of the House Financial Services Committee, a key player in the administration's belated effort to control ballooning deficits.
Here are some of the specific recommendations made in the Task Force report, "Debt, Deficits, and Defense -- A Way Forward."
Navy: Aircraft carriers reduced to nine from 12 planned. Air wings cut to eight. Ballistic missile submarines to seven from planned 14. Building of new attack submarines cut in half, leaving just 40 by 2020. Destroyer building frozen, and the new DDG-1000 Zumwalt class cancelled. Total warships reduced by 57 from current 287. Carrier launched version of the F-35 joint strike fighter cancelled.
Air Force: Six fighter air wings (or equivalents) retired. Three hundred fewer F-35's built than planned. The nuclear bomber force (B-1's, B-2's, B-52's) eliminated. New refueling tankers and procurement of additional C-17 cargo aircraft cancelled. Advanced missile projects curtailed.
Army: Active duty personnel reduced to 360,000 from present 562,400. Elimination of five brigade combat teams. Closure of unspecified overseas bases.
Marines: Active duty strength reduced to 145,000 from present 202,000. V-22 Osprey tilt rotor aircraft and Expeditionary Fighting Vehicle programs cancelled.
Armed forces-wide: "Resetting the calculation of military compensation and reforming the provision of military health care." Contemplated reductions in pay and benefits for armed forces personnel and their families could result in "savings" of $120 billion.
On Monday, August 9th, Secretary of Defense Robert Gates announced the closing of the Norfolk-based Joint Services Command, which he said would eliminate 5,000 defense related jobs. This is thought to be the first step among many to downsize the military.
No one should doubt that significant savings are both possible and desirable in a Defense budget of nearly $700 billion. The explosive growth of Pentagon spending did not begin with President Obama's election. It began many years ago and has continued through conservative Republican and liberal Democrat administrations. Much can be traced to the hiring of costly civilian contractors to perform work formerly performed by uniformed personnel.
Where the Navy Department is particularly at fault is in its long-time mismanagement of shipbuilding and aircraft acquisition programs. Is it credible to spend a billion dollars for one destroyer? Fifteen billion (or more) for an aircraft carrier? Multi-millions for one fighter plane? No, it is not. Nor is it credible for the sea service to have two or more admirals for every ship in the fleet.
But make no mistake about it, numbers do count -- numbers of ships, aircraft and troops on the ground when the nation is at war or threatened by war. The recommendations made by Barney Frank's study group, insofar as the Navy's numbers are concerned, do not seem to adequately consider that while the offensive power of today's warships and aircraft vastly exceeds that of those in times gone by, the ship and aircraft killing power of real and potential enemies is also greater.
It is a truism, one that even a cursory knowledge of history would seem to confirm, that war is most likely to break out when one party's preparation for it is perceived to be inadequate by another party. The penalty for miscalculation on either's part is severe.
America is still generally acknowledged to be the world's only remaining superpower. But America has allowed itself, insensibly, to be bogged down for nearly a decade in "small" wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Are we now, in the interest of rescuing our economy, engaging in a form of unilateral disarmament that will put the nation at risk when the next "big" war comes our way?
Think Europe between WWI and WWII. France and Britain had many more troops than Nazi Germany when WWII broke out. The problem was, France and Britain were so much more prepared to fight the last war than they were the next.
Are we on the same fatal path today?
R.L. Schreadley, a retired Navy commander, is a former Post and Courier executive editor.