Finding itself in a great power competition with traditional continental powers the United States has instinctively focused its attention once again on the sea only to find that instinct is not enough. Retired Navy captain and emerging geo-strategist Dr. Jerry Hendrix succinctly details a clear historical explanation as to why the concept of a free sea represents the foundational principle of the Western enlightenment and how the decline in American naval power has placed it at risk. With this understanding, Hendrix lays out a plan to rebuild the U.S. Navy and secure freedom for another generation.
Things Fall Apart – The Center Cannot Hold
After the Cold War, its participants unsurprisingly sought a “peace dividend” through massive cuts in defense spending. In 1989 the DoD topline budget was $593.34B in 2020 dollars, with the Army receiving $159.6B, the Navy and Marine Corps combined receiving $198.64B, and the Air Force receiving $193.5B or 27%, 33.5%, and 32.6% respectively. The remaining portion of the DoD budget was allotted toward other DoD expenses. Ten years later in 1999 the total DoD budget stood at $387.15B in 2020 dollars, with the Army getting $96.0B, the Navy and Marine Corps combined receiving $122.33B, and the Air Force coming in at $119.92B or 25%, 32%, and 31% respectively, again with an increased remainder going to support other portions of the Department of Defense.
These numbers represented a 35% cut in the defense budget. The US Navy made up a significant contribution to this effort in terms of real infrastructure, decommissioning 100 ships in the three years that followed the Soviet Union’s dissolution. The fleet dropped another 100 ships in the next four years, ending 1996 with a 375-ship battleforce. By that point, the downward momentum had accelerated, and the US Navy crashed through the 300-ship barrier in 2003, bottoming, as previously mentioned at 271 ships in 2015. A point to consider is that when a navy builds ships at a higher rate, say 18 ships per year, 25 to 30 years later that navy will be decommissioning those same ships at the same rate. Unless that navy is building new ships at the same rate, it will shrink in size. The Navy budget of the early 2000s was simply not large enough to finance the construction of new ships to keep up with the retirements of the ships built during the Reagan era naval buildup, and, in fact, a growing portion of its budget was dedicated to providing maintenance for its aging fleet.
During the same period Russia’s Navy was laid up, preserving only the most advanced aspects of its shipbuilding industrial base. China’s navy during this era focused its fleet first on coastal defense, then on a cross-channel invasion to overwhelm and defeat the Nationalist Kuomintang government on Taiwan, and then on building a defensive buffer, or wall, within the first island chain that extended from Japan to Taiwan to the Philippines and down into Indonesia. During the 1970–1995 era PLAN ships were coastal in their design and intended methods of operations. They were not built to operate in a “blue water” deep-ocean environments, outside of the range of land-based support, and most lacked even the ability to remain at sea for more than a few days without having to return to port to refuel and resupply with food. There was no reason for the Chinese to venture out into those waters. It was a daunting proposition to attempt to compete with Americans. Throughout the Cold War and even into the first years of the inter–Cold War era, the sheer size and overawing technological capabilities of the American Navy ensured that no foreign power tried to compete with it at sea. It was so dominant that even its allies and partners felt secure enough to dramatically cut back in their naval investments. In 1986 NATO member states fielded 236 frigates, with 113 of them American. Frigates, being the platform of choice to conduct anti-submarine warfare, were viewed as critical to the alliance, enabling it to counter Soviet submarines in the Atlantic and to escort the convoys of vital men and equipment from the United States to Europe in the event of a Warsaw Pact alliance invasion of the West. During the Cold War, the alliance could also put nearly 200 attack submarines to sea (with the United States supplying over 100 of them) to conduct anti-ship and antisubmarine operations.
Following the Soviet Union’s demise, however, Europe chose to focus inwardly on social issues while dramatically cutting defense programs. By 2017 NATO nations, absent the United States, fielded just 51 frigates and 32 submarines. Other key enabling capabilities, such as icebreakers, minesweepers, and military sealift ships, also saw shocking declines. European leaders made repeated statements that the world had fundamentally changed, that threats both on land and at sea had dramatically decreased to the point of irrelevance. For them, notions of security needed to be reconsidered in terms of the social challenges facing the broader European community.
As long as the United States and its treaty allies possessed a combined naval force of overwhelming size, they deterred other powers from competing at sea. However, 2015′s US fleet of 271 ships along with Europe’s shrinking naval force represented its smallest combined continental force since the English-Dutch wars of the seventeenth century. Many analysts and policy makers will swiftly (and correctly) point out that each ship in the modern US Navy was much more lethal than its counterpart in the World War I era, and certainly a single modern European frigate would make splinters of Admiral Michiel de Ruyter’s entire early Dutch fleet, but such arguments cannot counter a fact that the United States’ competitors understand all too well: Even the most lethal ship cannot be in more than one place at a time. It also ignores the fact that competitors are improving the quality of their ships even as they expand their quantities.
These facts present a problem for the United States and an opportunity for those who would make themselves its enemy. The United States had made commitments to maintain ships forward deployed in key regions as a means of providing security through naval presence, but its shrinking fleet rendered these commitments unmeetable. It also strongly implied that if US ships were to be lost in battle, it would be difficult to replace them, an important component in any would-be enemy’s deterrence calculations. These arguments lie at the core of the current maritime debate about the future of the free sea.
The US Navy established its deployment commitments at a time when it had a fleet twice as large. In addition, it set up a maintenance-training-deployment cycle that allowed it to keep its ships in good material condition and its crews highly trained and combat ready when they sailed out of their home ports and set a course for their deployment stations. With a large fleet this resulted in an inter-deployment training cycle, which had one-quarter of the Navy’s ships in maintenance, one-quarter in predeployment training exercises, one-quarter either going to or coming home from distant deployment stations, and one-quarter actually on deployment. This system worked and it even allowed the regional combatant commanders to gradually increase their requirements. If the European commander needed a few destroyers to do a passing exercise in the Barents Sea on an annual basis or the Pacific commander wanted a carrier strike group to conduct a freedom of navigation operation in the South China Sea, there was no problem. The Atlantic and Pacific Fleet staffs would simply write these exercises into their plans based upon available ships, and so these requests grew over time. But as the fleet drew down, the number of requested ships could not keep pace with the contraction and the ratio of deployed ships to ships in maintenance, training, or transit diverged from accepted norms.
At the height of the Cold War the fleet had around 600 ships and it kept 150 forward deployed. During the post–Cold War era the fleet fell to less than 300 ships. Had the fleet rigorously adhered to its commitment to ship maintenance, crew training, transit, and on-station time, then the number of forward-deployed platforms should have fallen to around 75 ships, but it did not. Due to the priority that regional combatant commanders placed on naval presence, and the desire of Navy commanders to demonstrate the “can do” character” of the service, the number of ships underway only fell to around 100 ships, which meant that at any given moment a third of the battleforce was underway.
It also meant that Navy commanders at home were no longer meeting all the presence requests of the regional combatant commanders. In fact, they have been routinely 50 ships short of them. Given that recent naval deployments have not gotten shorter (they actually increased from six months to eight months on average over the past decade), this meant that either ship maintenance or crew training had to be diminished to meet the Navy’s presence commitments. Evidence suggests that both were cut. Ships in maintenance presently in 2020 take longer to repair due to the backlog of problems not addressed during previous shipyard availabilities. These longer yard periods place a greater burden on the rest of the fleet, causing the material readiness of those ships that can deploy to degrade even more quickly. This is otherwise known as a material death spiral. Similarly, shorter periods of crew training were cited in the after-action reports of the three collisions and one grounding that occurred in 2017, the Navy’s worst year in recent memory. Seventeen Sailors were killed and two ballistic missile defense capable destroyers were taken out of the fleet for three years for repairs at the cost of hundreds of millions of dollars. Ironically, due to the historic backlog in ship maintenance, the three-year repair period for each of the ships damaged by collisions represented more time than it took to build, launch, and commission the two destroyers originally.
Given that only 100 ships are underway versus the previous Cold War average of 150, and that those 100 ships are in materially worse condition, not fully manned, and the Sailors are not completely trained, then it can be understood that the United States is not as “present” as it has been in the past, and thus is receding on the international stage. This change was easily noted. Regions that had previously experienced two-week gaps between ship visits now went two, and then three, and sometimes six months without seeing a US Navy ship. Seas that had been frequented by aircraft carrier strike groups found themselves making do first with cruisers, then destroyers, and then later the modern corvette, the Littoral Combat Ship. Exercises with allies and partner nations were shortened to limit the amount of time that US Navy ships needed to participate, simplified to allow destroyers or Littoral Combat Ships to replace carriers and cruisers, or outright cancelled in key regions. Other types of crucial US Navy operations — such as Freedom of Navigation Operations (FONOPS), Transit Passage Operations, or Innocent Passage Operations, which sought to reject excessive territorial claims, illegal baselines, or internal waters claims that endangered the concepts of free navigation or free seas — were conducted less frequently or not at all, in critical areas.
Thus the center of the global international construct of a free sea, upon which free trade flowed, began to crumble and rising powers, who were Eastern in their philosophical culture, continentalist in their viewpoint, and authoritarian in their approach to governance, began to sense the weakness in the West and its champion, the United States. The smaller size of the American fleet, its declining material condition and combat readiness, its increasing failure to maintain forward presence, and the shrinking size of its ally’s navies convinced nations that had once been overawed by American naval power that perhaps now it was possible to compete with the world’s only “superpower” at sea. A vacuum, created in weakness, offered an invitation to be filled. That this invitation arrived just as other critical political, economic, demographic, and technological factors constructively combined to present rising powers with the opportunity to shift their geostrategic focus from the land toward the sea.
Henry J. “Jerry” Hendrix is a retired naval officer, force structure analyst and strategist who served in the Office of the Under Secretary of Defense for Policy, the Office of Net Assessment, the director of the Secretary of the Navy’s Advisory Panel and as director of the Naval History and Heritage Command. Following his retirement from active duty, he has served as a senior fellow in a Washington, D.C., thinktank and most recently as a consultant to government and industry on strategic issues.
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