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Atlantic Naval Forces Have a Future

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Since Congress passed the “Two-Ocean Navy Bill” in 1940, the U.S. Navy has been sized to operate simultaneously in the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans. First during the Second World War and then later against Soviet naval forces, the “Atlantic Fleet” held the line against America’s enemies.

USS Harry S. Truman underway in the Atlantic on Sept. 5, U.S. Navy Photo

USS Harry S. Truman underway in the Atlantic on Sept. 5, U.S. Navy Photo

Today, with the high-end threats in the Atlantic Ocean subdued, the Navy has called for posturing “credible combat power” in the Indian and Pacific Oceans. One question I am often asked is if this will result in a diminished role for U.S. naval forces on the Atlantic coast as the Navy turns its attention to the Indo-Pacific region. The answer: Far from it. Our East Coast forces will continue to play a major role in regions beyond the geographic scope of their “Atlantic” posture, taking the lead in contributing to sea control and power projection missions in the Arabian Gulf/Indian Ocean while also performing ballistic missile defense, constabulary, intelligence/surveillance/reconnaissance, and partnership-building missions in the Southern Command, Africa Command and the European Command areas of responsibility.

To be clear: today, the largest problem facing the fleet is not how it is postured but how it is sized. At 286 battle force ships, the Navy is at its smallest numerical size since the First World War. Demand for ships has only increased in the past 6 years from 20,068 operational days requested in Fiscal Year (FY) 07 to 32,915 in FY12. Navy officials have testified they would need 500 ships to meet these demands, yet the “supply” of ships only continues to decline. At the same time, deployment times have increased in recent years leading to a decrease in dwell time for sailors and testing the readiness of the fleet. But after years of asking for 313 ships and bipartisan panels recommending an even larger fleet, Navy political leadership now insists it can do more with even less. Invariably, this policy has translated into larger stress on the force both in terms of longer deployments for our sailors and increased maintenance requirements for the fleet. In short, the Navy needs to procure more ships and adequately maintain the current ships to obtain their design service life.

When it comes to posture, strategic options are essential to providing the Combatant Commanders alternatives to pursue in cases of escalating conflict. Invariably, this belies a balanced homeporting strategy between the East and West Coast. Specifically, U.S. Naval forces from the Atlantic coast are ideally positioned to meet the demands of our Combatant Commanders. The Arabian Gulf, which remains one of the most critical maritime areas in the world and borders an Iranian regime that continues to pursue nuclear weapons, is roughly 24 sailing days from the East Coast, a full week closer than U.S. naval forces operating from the West Coast. The Suez Canal, another important choke-point located between Egypt and Israel, is also just a 15 day sail from the East Coast. In the future, aircraft carriers, destroyers, cruisers, amphibious assault ships, and attack submarines sailing from the East Coast will continue to be the best situated to meet the demands of the Central Command Commander in the Arabian Gulf region or surge combat power when a crisis arises.

East Coast naval forces will also play a pivotal role in resourcing other missions in U.S. Southern Command, Africa Command, and European Command. Ships like the Littoral Combat Ship (LCS) and Joint High Speed Vessel (JHSV) will help conduct counter-narcotics operations in the Caribbean and Gulf of Mexico, anti-piracy in the Gulfs of Guinea and Oman, and conduct training exercises with foreign navies and coast guards to help build capacity. The hospital ship USNS Comfort and our amphibious ships will also be called on to conduct future humanitarian assistance and disaster response missions in these regions.

While the Navy has chosen to homeport a variety of platforms to Europe, the Middle East, and Asia to provide greater forward presence, it continues to make good sense to operate the majority of U.S. naval assets from sovereign U.S. territory. Providing assets from U.S. territories gives the combatant commanders the requisite strategic diversity to best respond to emerging conflicts. A U.S. basing approach helps to sustain a strong domestic industrial base. It is also generally cheaper to do so in terms of maintenance costs. Finally, by basing the majority of U.S. naval forces on U.S. territory, we can avoid many of the diplomatic challenges associated with operating from foreign ports. Where U.S. forces are welcomed to homeport today could change rapidly and leave us with little flexibility tomorrow. Indeed, experiences in the Philippines and places like Turkey have demonstrated how domestic politics and diplomatic considerations can frustrate America’s strategic options.

Security in the Asia-Pacific region has for good reason become a high priority in American strategic thinking. I have long called for such a prioritization. Nevertheless, America’s enduring interests in the Middle East, along with South America and Africa, will demand continued attention and presence from our naval forces in this century. Although East Coast naval forces are often thought of as “Atlantic,” the short sailing distances to these important regions will ensure their importance in the future stretches far beyond the Atlantic Ocean.