Former SECNAVs Note Challenges in Build-Up to 350-Ship Navy
By RICHARD R. BURGESS, Managing Editor
WASHINGTON — The proposed build-up to a 350-ship Navy poses enormous challenges in terms of affordability, manning, training and readiness, say three former secretaries of the Navy (SECNAVs), who offered a range of opinions on the proposal and even the validity of the number as a metric.
Speaking Nov. 15 to an audience at the Center for Strategic and International Studies were John F. Lehman, who served in the Reagan administration; Sean C. O’Keefe, who was SECNAV for President George H.W. bush; and Richard C. Danzig, who served in the Clinton administration.
Lehman, who implemented a build-up toward a 600-ship Navy in the 1980s, reaching 594 in 1987, said the 350-ship Navy is achievable if the will is there and the resources are dedicated to that goal.
“Can we get there? Of course we can get there,” Lehman said. “There is so much nonsense about [the limitations of] the industrial base. … The industrial base will respond to whatever is obviously and sincerely happening. … [Industry] has to see there is a commitment.”
Lehman pointed out that during the nation’s three-and-a-half-year participation in World War II, the Navy built up to 5,000 ships, including 105 aircraft carriers of various sizes.
He lamented the current state of the fleet which, at 276 ships, is being “run into the ground” by the demands of combatant commanders, lack of maintenance and spare parts, and the departure of good people. He noted that not only are seamanship skills diminished by lack of training time, but even more so are the combat skills of Sailors.
O’Keefe said the “greater challenges is going to be how much of the resources it [a 350-ship build-up] consumes,” noting the budget pressures of the entitlement programs that take up an ever-increasing percentage of the federal budget.
He said that personnel costs, including housing and medical care, are more than half the cost of manning a ship over its service life.
Danzig said the focus on the number of ships “seems to put the emphasis on the wrong place.”
He listed three problems with building a 350-ship Navy. First is overstretching personnel, a problem he said would be exacerbated by the manning increase needed for a larger fleet. Second, he noted the need for basic technology and innovation, with such challenges as artificial intelligence, cyber warfare and hypersonic weapons.
“We don’t deal with those issues by structure,” Danzig said.
Third, he said, is the hi-lo mix of the fleet.
“It’s the high end that we need for that contingency,” he said, speaking of war with peer competitors, saying that a focus on the number ships distracts from that.
Danzig said the fleet needed improvements in stand-off offensive capability at hundreds or thousands of miles.
Lehman said the manning challenges of a larger fleet are less imposing than many think. He noted the Reagan build-up toward 600 ships was able to meet recruiting challenges within six months of the implementation because people “wanted to be part of a winning team.”
He said that “if you commit as a nation to rebuild, to prevail, the people will flock,” including top-quality people.
Lehman noted that the motion picture “Top Gun” was a tremendous motivator in recruiting, attracting three times the previous number of applicants to naval aviator training.
He said that carrier battle groups are now called carrier strike groups because, at their much smaller size, they are no longer as capable of battle at sea. For competing with navies such as the Russian navy, with its increasingly silent submarines, more anti-submarine ships are needed to protect carriers.
He also criticized the defense acquisition system, calling for shorter development cycles and increased competition.
“Going through the current system is a guarantee of our defeat,” he said.