by J. F. Kelly, Jr. | Coronado

Federal deficits clearly pose a serious risk to our economy and jeopardize the future health of our country. These deficits are a direct result of unrestrained federal spending, primarily on social programs like Medicare, Medicaid and Social security, but also on fighting wars. Reasonable people can argue over whether or not these wars were worth the cost, but few will argue the fact that a strong military is essential to America’s safety. The question, as always, is: how strong does it have to be and how much does it have to cost?

We live in a dynamic world where the threat is ever changing and the future is unpredictable. America has a habit of disarming after conflicts, resulting in a military unprepared for the new conflicts which inevitably come. We were unprepared at the outsets of World War II and the Korean Conflict and we paid dearly for it in terms of initial casualties.

In the search for ways in which to reduce federal spending, no area should escape scrutiny, including defense. But in examining ways to reduce defense expenditures, risk assessment and intelligence, not politics, should guide us. The consequences of cutting  government programs like social programs can be measured in terms of human hardship but the consequences of unwise cuts to  the defense budget resulting in a military unprepared to deal successfully with a threat could be catastrophic.

Reading the recommendations of a congressional panel recently commissioned by Democratic Rep. Barney Frank of Massachusetts is not encouraging to those who believe that a balanced budget must not be achieved at the cost of a diminished defense capability. The report, entitled, “Debt, Deficits & Defense: A Way Forward” recommends cuts of nearly $1 trillion to the defense budget during the coming decade, $150 billions of which would come from the Navy. The so-called Sustainable Defense Task Force recommends reducing the size of the fleet to 230 ocean-going ships.

Three successive Chiefs of Naval Operations have maintained the need for 313 ships based upon strategic analyses. They have stressed, moreover, that 313 is a floor, not a ceiling. Our current force level is 286 ships and, based upon the current shipbuilding rate, will continue to shrink. The shipbuilding budget has been essentially frozen at $15 billions for the past ten years. It is insufficient to maintain even the current fleet level which is hard-pressed to maintain a three-ocean deployment commitment.

The arguments presented for this proposed reduction to America’s most mobile, forward deployed military service are specious. The report stated that no other navy comes close to matching ours in size or firepower. This argument seems to have seduced even Defense Secretary Robert Gates who questioned recently why we needed 11 aircraft carriers when no other navy had more than one.

Permit me to offer an answer. We did not build aircraft carriers to fight other aircraft carriers nor is it the sole purpose of the U.S. Navy to fight other navies. Their primary purpose is to project force to any part of the world where it might be needed to protect U.S. vital interests which are many and far-flung. That lethal force can be delivered with astonishing swiftness and accuracy by Navy aircraft or ship-launched missiles, by Marines from the sea or air in amphibious assault operations or by Navy Seals nearly anywhere in the world. Naval forces can operate anywhere on the oceans that comprise over three-fifths of the world’s surface without relying upon foreign bases. They can protect shipping, respond to natural disasters, remain on station indefinitely while providing multiple options to the commander-in-chief and provide a visible presence in troubled areas, the kind of presence that reassures our friends and warns our enemies.

With respect to presence, the civilian geniuses on the panel concluded that the link between generalized presence and “specific outcomes’ is too tenuous to warrant the cost. They also argued that a reduced fleet could be compensated for by more emphasis on “surging” naval forces. With regard to the former, presence does matter. It demonstrates commitment and reduces reaction time. Nuclear capable warships and ships loaded with aircraft and marines on the horizon are not empty threats. Diplomatic warnings and UN resolutions often are. Besides, how exactly does one calculate the cost of not having presence in order to determine whether or not it is warranted?

Regarding the need to compensate for a smaller fleet by surging naval forces when necessary, someone needs to remind the eggheads on the panel that it takes five years on average to build a warship. Moreover, our capacity to build them has woefully deteriorated. And with respect to the need for rapidly surging naval forces, “surge” hardly applies to ships having to travel halfway around the earth at 20 knots or so and which may require weeks or months to get ready.

There should indeed be no “sacred cows” when it comes to looking for ways to reduce federal spending, but we must remember that we are a maritime nation dependent upon ocean commerce and the use of sea-based platforms for defense. We have many overseas commitments vital to our national interests, requiring a navy that is measured by those commitments, not the size and composition of other navies. Even though our ships are more capable than ever before, they still can only be in one place at a time.

As for ways to save money, we might start by asking Congress to refrain from commissioning any more panels of academic researchers and consult some genuine experts. There are plenty of them still in uniform and their advice is free.


copyright 2010 J.F. Kelly, Jr

J.F. Kelly, Jr. is a retired Navy Captain and bank executive who writes on current events and military subjects. He is a resident of Coronado, California.

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