Friday, January 27, 2012

The Proof Is In The Pudding

The details of the FY13 budget are beginning to drift out, and it seems that the much ballyhooed "pivot" to Asia--and by inference, to Naval and Aerospace power--is more heat than light.  As I discussed on last week's Midrats internet radio show, there are two ways to demonstrate budget emphasis.  One is to spend more on something, and the other is to spend less, but have the magnitude of the cut be less than other priorities, creating an "emphasis by subtraction".  This is what it appears to have occurred in the FY13 budget. 

News reports and Pentagon statements indicate that the Navy will retire 7 cruisers and 2 LSD's early, while cutting its shipbuilding totals 28% from the FY12 estimate for 2013-2017 (57 ships) to 41 ships in the same period with this budget.  Retiring assets early from a Fleet already stressed to meet its commitments, and then eating your shipbuilding "seed corn",  strike me as odd ways to demonstrate an emphasis on Seapower.  I've talked to some in the Navy who suggest that under the new plan, we'll be able to field as many ships in 2020 as we do now, which is put forward as evidence of great progress and victories within the Pentagon bureaucracy. How this reconciles with the fact that the Fleet we have NOW does not meet the needs of the COCOMS--let alone the Fleet some project to be necessary to underwrite East Asian security in the face of Chinese expansion and modernization--evades me. 

For navalists, the current Republican Presidential primary has included several references to Fleet size, some of which have had issue taken with them in the press (NOTE:  I am actively supporting Mitt Romney for President).  In this one, Walter Pincus seizes upon what he believes is a lack of detail among the candidates when discussing the Fleet.  His suggestion that Romney's use of "9 ships is a year out of date" (to summarize yearly shipbuilding levels) ignores the basic fact that in the last year in which we have complete information (FY11), the Navy procured only 9 ships.  He then goes on to point to an erroneous figure of 55 ships over the next five years (the number in the FY12 budget was 57), while hedging his criticism by saying "...the fiscal 2013 budget due shortly could change things....".  Indeed it has, again, by dramatically cutting the number of ships to be built, by retiring useful ships early, and by deferring the acquisition of critical submarines.  This again--in a strategy emphasizing an immense maritime theater and the Seapower and Aerospace power necessary to dominate it. 

Clearly, the number of hulls as a measure of Naval power ain't what it used to be.  However, the suggestion that networks and precision guided munitions make hull counts unimportant points again to the basic physics problem that Naval planners have faced since the Phoenicians--a ship can only be in one place at a time.  Quantity does have a quality all its own, and as I've advocated many times on this site, networks and PGM's are of incalculable value when the Navy is fighting; however they are less important when the Navy is doing what it does the vast majority of the time--deterring and assuring.  We are sliding into the trap of sizing our Navy to fight and win wars only, de-emphasizing the critical role of what Tom Barnett has termed "system maintenance".  The more we move toward a force designed ONLY to fight wars, the more likely such a Fleet will be to become a magnificent anachronism--powerful, networked, and top-notch--but operating largely in the Virginia Capes and San Diego opareas. 

Bryan McGrath

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