Navy Under Secretary Robert Work torpedoed nostalgia for a 600-ship Navy on Thursday, arguing that today’s Sea Service would far outmatch the peak Fleet size of 1989, and adding that it may be downhill from here.
Work, who spoke at the Surface Navy Association’s 2013 symposium, methodically rebutted claims that the Navy had ever been as large as 600 ships. He pointed out that goals for a much larger Navy than today’s were based on reports that never received official approval or were interim targets as the Fleet drew down.
While acknowledging that the surface combat fleet has shrunk by about 28 ships, he pointed out that the tradeoff has been for more capable cruisers and destroyers, all of which have guided-missile capability, unlike the ships of old.
“[When] you talk about today, you say, ‘Wow, we’re having a lot of problems.’ People forget that back then you had to worry about steam-powered plants, you had to worry about all different types of training pass, you had all different types of maintenance pass,” he said. “I cannot imagine an officer saying they would rather fight the 1989 surface fleet over the Fleet we have now, given the capabilities that we have.”
He said the Navy will have to fight to hold the line on hull numbers in the future. The next step is a Force Structure Assessment that will come out when the president releases his fiscal 2014 budget. Work estimated that the new FSA will include about 90 cruisers and destroyers, and 55 small combatants, namely littoral combat ships.
That force will be based on a new strategic concept. Whereas past Quadrennial Defense Reviews have called for a military that can fight a two-theater war with near-peer competitors, the FSA assumes only one theater of full-blown combat, and another of operations in an access-denied environment.
He added, “It might get worse. OK, it probably will. But this is the heyday of the U.S. surface navy.”
Part of the Navy’s uncertain future, of course, is sequestration, which loomed large over every aspect of the SNA symposium.
Work noted that there are many possible fiscal permutations in the coming year, barring a return to budgetary normality. He hazarded a guess that Congress will pass a yearlong continuing resolution (CR) in March. In that case, the Navy would need authority for new building starts and for shifting money among accounts in order to stay the course.
While he called the prospect unlikely, he said the worst-case scenario would be sequestration followed by a yearlong CR. “And if that happens, ladies and gentlemen,” he said, “the world as we know it will end.”
“There’s just no way we’re going to be able to keep the Navy whole or the Marine Corps whole if that happens,” he continued. “No way. So if anybody tells you, ‘Aw just take a shave, we’re bloated, blah, blah, blah’—yeah, tell ’em to come sit in my shoes for maybe a half hour, and then they’ll sleep like a baby. They’ll wake up crying every two hours, too.”