US Naval forces are in the throes of what may prove to be a
major challenge to their newly re‑
established command of the seas.
The Navy and Marine Corps face problems that could undermine
the maritime supremacy of today's rebuilt, 568-ship armada of fourteen
carriers, 100 submarines, four battleships, and amphibious and other units.
Unless the erosion is checked, argues Adm. Carlisle A. H.
Trost, Chief of Naval Operations, "much of what we have gained over the
past years could . . . be dissipated."
Even as President Bush reviewed US defense policy, concerns
for the future of US dominance at sea were being fueled by:
•Pressure on force structure—especially aircraft carriers.
• The persistence of gaps in surface warship capabilities.
• A far-reaching Soviet challenge in antisubmarine warfare.
• Problems acquiring new aircraft and ships for amphibious
• Political and diplomatic threats to naval weapons.
Navymen, determined to protect the fleet, are preparing for
a protracted fight to arrest the trends. They expect heated controversies in
Congress, the Pentagon, and their sister services.
What they want to preserve is the global supremacy of
today's force. The fleet has staged an abrupt turnaround since 1981, when Adm.
Thomas B. Hayward, then CNO, charged it had lost even a "slim margin of
superiority" and was in fact "on the ragged edge of adequacy."
Today, by contrast, Admiral Trost reports the Navy "has
never been more ready." Even against massed Soviet might in the Northwest
Pacific or Norwegian Sea, notes Adm. William Crowe, the Joint Chiefs of Staff
Chairman, "we would fare well." Marines win similarly high praise.
Central to the fleet's revival has been its expansion in
size. Compared with the 475-ship Navy of 1980, today's is larger by a net of
nearly 100 warships. Added to the fleet have been two massive aircraft
carriers, USS Carl Vinson and USS Theodore Roosevelt; four battleships packing
sixteen-inch guns and cruise missiles; and twenty-five more nuclear-powered
attack submarines, among other ships.
Equally critical to the turnaround was a decade of success
in recruiting and retaining top-caliber servicemen and women. The result, say
officers, is that the quality of today's force of 592,000 sailors and 197,000
Marines is at an all-time high.
Headaches on Three
Naval forces also have benefited from vastly improved
readiness. Since 1980, the proportion of materially ready surface ships has
risen to seventy-five percent, up from fifty percent. Measurements of overall
ship readiness are up 100 percent. For aircraft, the figure is 250 percent.
The Navy has largely completed building stocks of war reserve spares and
expanded its stockpile of munitions by fifty percent.
Tomorrow's problem can be put in a phrase: events in the
Soviet Union. The adroit diplomacy of President Mikhail Gorbachev, plus major
Soviet military advances, are creating headaches on three fronts.
First, a sharp decline in public anxiety about the
"Soviet threat" has sparked growing resistance to defense outlays.
Budget-cutting fever brought a cumulative $5.8 billion cut in Navy and Marine
Corps budgets for Fiscal Years 1990 and 1991.
Second, despite US resistance, Moscow is stepping up
pressure to include certain US naval forces in East-West arms negotiations.
Third, Soviet technological advances strike at the heart of
Navy might—in particular, its power to wage undersea warfare.
The combination of fiscal, diplomatic, and technological
threats, experts agree, poses a big challenge to maintaining the seapower that
the Navy and Marine Corps insist the US must have.
Few problems are viewed with more alarm than pressure on
force structure—the far-flung collection of ships and aircraft that backs up
commitments from the nearby Caribbean to the distant Indian Ocean.
Budget woes are raising risks. Some foresee a rerun of the
time in the 1970s when, in Admiral Hay-ward's words, Washington was
"trying to meet a three-ocean requirement with a one-and-a-half-ocean
This concern might be only slightly exaggerated. Already
abandoned are plans for further fleet expansion. The goal of a "600-ship
Navy"—set by Adm. James Holloway in 1974, embraced by President Reagan
in 1981, pursued by former Navy Secretary John F. Lehman, Jr., and recently
within the Navy's grasp—is in history's dustbin. Achievement of the goal, first
frustrated by the earlier-than-planned retirement of sixteen frigates in
1988, was stopped dead in program revisions carried out by Defense Secretary
Richard B. Cheney in April. In coming years, for example, the Navy will shift
up to twenty-four more FF-1052-class frigates to the reserves and retire DDG-2
and DDG-37 destroyers earlier than planned.
"There is no way that you can make the decisions I've
made," says the Secretary, "and reach a 600-ship Navy anytime in the
Indeed, the question now is whether the Navy can escape a decline
that would hamper forward operations underlying its maritime strategy.
One source of concern: leaner shipbuilding budgets, which
pro- vide the funds for future warships to offset retirements. Though the Navy
faces block obsolescence of some surface and undersea ships, there will be a
drop in the notional purchase rate of about twenty-five ships a year to twenty
in FY '90 and fifteen in FY '91. Already lost in FY '90 are two mine-hunters
and one SSN-688 submarine.
Challenge to the
The Navy frets, too, about an essentially political
threat—the prospect that Bush policymakers will choose to make do with a
smaller fleet. In its defense review, the Administration explored options for
placing many ships in reserve and deploying the rest closer to home.
A developing challenge to the great aircraft carrier—the sun
around which all US maritime schemes orbit—lies at the heart of Navy unease
about the future of its force structure.
Controversy over the carrier fleet, which seemed to die out
in the mid-1980s, has been resurrected. Future numbers and tasks more and more
are called into question.
The reason Navy concern focuses on the carrier is simple.
Not only is it the most potent conventional weapon afloat; in addition, the carrier
fleet determines the size and budget of the entire Navy. Each ship, with ninety
airplanes and 5,000 men, puts to sea with surface escorts, submarines, and
trains of supply ships. When a carrier goes down, its task force sinks too.
Now, Navy worries along these lines increasingly appear to
be justified. The country's relentless, ten-year pursuit of a big carrier buildup—from
twelve deployable decks to a fifteen-carrier level it was to have achieved this
year—has been thrown into neutral, if not reverse.
One major setback: Secretary Cheney's cost-cutting order to
accelerate retirement of two World War II-vintage decks. His new timetable
calls for retiring USS Coral Sea this
fall, two years earlier than planned, and USS Midway in 1992, five years ahead of schedule.
Under the Navy's now-defunct plan, later retirements would
have allowed attainment of a fifteen-deck force and left it intact in the
1990s. Now, the retirements of Coral Sea
and Midway will coincide, respectively,
with the commissionings of USS Lincoln
and USS Washington, two Nimitz-class
ships. This one-for-one tradeout will freeze the force at fourteen carriers at
least until 1997, the earliest date that another new deck will go to sea.
The schedule is but one problem. Even the fifteen-carrier
goal has been abandoned. Cheney has reset the objective at fourteen. His decision—if
it holds—will slow the pace of new carrier buys.
Internal Navy plans call for seeking at least one carrier
in Fiscal '96 and more later, to hold its numbers. The Navy faces the start, in
2000, of massive carrier retirements. Because they take years to build, replacements
must be started soon.
However, some Navy analysts report sentiment among White
House aides for keeping as few as twelve decks. Rep. Les Aspin, the Wisconsin
Democrat who chairs the House Armed Services Committee, seems similarly
Apprehensions are compounded by trends enveloping carrier
air wings. The number of fighter and attack planes, long on a downward
trajectory, might now be going into a steep fall.
Many experts say today's aircraft purchases are insufficient
to support even the truncated force structure of thirteen active and two reserve
wings that budget austerity has obliged the service to accept and that it views
as a minimum for fourteen carriers.
"It looks to me," Aspin informed the Navy
hierarchy, "like you're setting up for a smaller fleet than fourteen
Pain of the Budget
While the Navy disputes his assessment, there is no denying
the pain inflicted by budget cuts that chopped $1 billion from Navy tactical
aircraft funds for FYs '90 and '91. Each year, for example, the Navy will buy
six fewer F/A-18 strike fighters than planned.
Taking the biggest blow, however, is Grumman's F-14 Tomcat
air-superiority fighter, the Cadillac of Navy warplanes. New production of 127
advanced F- 14Ds, a $6.3 billion program, was axed. What is left is a modest
plan to upgrade 400 existing F-14As into D models. Service lives are not
With Grumman leading a battle in Congress to save the F-14D,
the Tomcat's prospects are uncertain. The Navy predicts that, without the new
aircraft, it will be fifty-six Tomcats short by 1999. The Congressional
Research Service puts the figure at 110 F- 14s.
Tomcat woes come on top of the death, in 1988, of Navy plans
to buy new F-model A-6 medium bombers. A-6Fs were to replace A-6Es, which,
aging none too gracefully, won't last much longer. Prospective shortages pose
what Former Navy Secretary William Ball calls "a certain risk."
The gamble, in both fighter and attack areas, is that a new
generation of stealth airplanes will come along as advertised. Navymen concede
that, without the F-14D or A-6F, they must hope that the navalized variant of
the USAF Advanced Tactical Fighter (ATF) and the Navy's own A-12 medium bomber
won't hit performance, schedule, or cost snags. Both are richly funded to keep
them on course for the mid- to late 1990s.
Even if the Navy remained at present size, future domination
at sea might be threatened by a gaping hole in capability that stems from spot
shortages of certain surface combatants.
The most optimistic plans provide no early solution to the
fleet's insufficient numbers of cruisers and destroyers cast for major roles in
fleet air defense and antisubmarine warfare. The Navy has little alternative
but to live with a weakness that, while manageable today, could grow more
serious in the future.
Budget pressures are key. The Navy's Surface Combatant Force
Requirements Study, finished in 1988, sets a revised objective of 224 vessels,
down from 242 in the preceding plan and far under needs. A reduced total of
120 is to be cruiser or destroyer "battle force combatants." In
practical terms, however, the plan is moot.
"Fiscal constraints," former Defense Secretary
Frank Carlucci conceded in his last Pentagon budget report, "continue to
preclude the achievement of even the Navy's reduced . . . objective of 224
A deficit in antiair warfare combatants, now at but
sixty-four percent of required numbers, is seen as especially acute. The mounting
threat of high-speed cruise missiles, says Admiral Trost, makes wider
deployment of new AEGIS air defense systems "my top surface-combatant
But procurement of AEGIS-equipped DDG-51 Burke-class destroyers
is faltering. The Navy, which wants to buy twenty-five in the next five years,
is sixteen months behind schedule on the lead ship. The other part of the AEGIS
team, the twenty-seven-ship force of CG-47-class cruisers, is paid for but will
arrive late. Delays and overruns are afflicting construction.
Soviet Submarine Stealthiness
Another threat to US power—potentially the greatest—can be
seen in the increasing stealthiness of Russia's 300-strong submarine force. At
issue may be the US Navy's very ability to operate beyond home waters in a
Today, notes Admiral Crowe, Russia's wolf pack could be overcome
only after "an all-out effort by the bulk of [US] Atlantic and Pacific
fleets." It is still possible because the typical USSR sub, fielded in
greater numbers, is noisy and can be "heard" and located by acoustic
listening devices of US antisubmarine warfare (ASW) forces.
Now, this edge is eroding and may be headed for oblivion.
Future USSR boats, say experts, will be difficult if not impossible to hear. If
intelligence estimates are any guide, recent submarine types are displaying big
gains in acoustic dampening. The trend first became apparent with the Soviet
launchings, in 1983, of Sierra- and Mike-class boats. The emergence one year
later of superquiet Akula-class subs, comparable in stealthiness to the best US
boats, confirmed it.
The trend is a body blow to US ASW power. That power is
deeply reliant on passive acoustic devices—underwater microphones that detect
sounds of engines and propellers—which quiet subs would make obsolete.
The danger, concludes a recent study for Congress by a
high-level panel of experts, is urgent. "We must build what will amount to
an entire new ASW capability by the time the Soviet Union has built a
significant number of new submarines," the group reports.
Costly though that may be, the price of not doing so might
be higher still. Experts say that, in a general war, hundreds of Soviet
submarines roaming free might cut sea-lanes over which the US could reinforce
European and Far East allies, sink carriers and other warships, and even launch
missile attacks on US coasts.
Admiral Trost concedes the severity of the ASW challenge,
which he terms his "top warfighting priority." Though the US lead in
ASW continues to be "substantial," he asserts, it is now
"narrowing more rapidly than [had been predicted in] earlier
Future ASW techniques, always a closely guarded activity,
are impossible for an outsider to discern. What is clear is that the US is
spending billions. Prospects cited in open studies range from greater use of
active sonar to nonacoustic techniques such as magnetic anomaly detection.
Even so, Admiral Trost warns that "there are no silver
bullets or easy, pat answers to ASW." Defeating a large submarine threat,
the CNO adds, will always require superiority throughout US ASW
forces—submarines, aircraft, surface ships, space systems, and tactics.
Tighter budgets will complicate matters. For example,
cost-cutting moves will compel the Navy to retire seventy-three P-3 sub-hunter
planes over the next few years before the new P-7A Long-Range Air ASW Capable
Aircraft phases in. Purchases of the SH-60F inner-zone antisubmarine warfare
helicopter were reduced.
The newest Navy attack sub may also be sensitive to money
problems. The Navy is banking heavily on the controversial SSN-21 Seawolf,
which it sees as a revolutionary advance, to counter the Soviet challenge. The
thirty-boat Seawolf program is projected to cost $32 billion. Non-Navy experts
assert that, at that price for those numbers, the US may be hard pressed to
hold a force of 100 submarines, which only recently has been achieved and which
is seen as the minimum requirement.
The most singular facet of US maritime supereminence—ability
to project Marine infantry ashore—may prove especially hard to sustain.
Making an opposed amphibious landing has always been a
unique, dangerous task. In a future world where "smart" weaponry and
effective warning sensors dominate, storming across the beach may be even
dicier. The Corps says it needs swifter, longer-range transports to help
Marines "hit 'em where they ain't." This type of hard-to-see,
over-the-horizon assault has become a cardinal tenet of the future Marine
Now, achievement of this power looks shaky. The aircraft on
which the Marine Corps has pinned high hopes, the new V-22 Osprey, is in
trouble. The tilt-rotor Osprey, which takes off and lands like a helicopter
but cruises like an airplane, is expensive—some $27 billion for 627 planes. It
was because of cost that Secretary Cheney, last April, decided to terminate
the program after the current fiscal year ends. He says that the mission,
ferrying Marines from ship to shore, is too "narrow" to justify the
outlay. The Marines, he says, must make do with slower current and planned
A top naval analyst, Scott Truver, regards this move as a
"grave challenge to the Marines as they ponder their ability to remain
'relevant' to naval warfare" for the rest of the century.
The Osprey program, which enjoys strong congressional
support, may be kept alive. Whatever the outcome of the furor in 1989, however,
the plane is sure to remain vulnerable for years.
The same holds true for the Navy's force of amphibious warships,
specialized ships needed to get Marines and supplies to a crisis zone. Plans
developed early in the Reagan Administration call for sufficient sealift to
move assault echelons of a Marine Expeditionary Force and Marine Expeditionary
Brigade simultaneously. Capacity, which had risen from seventy-one to
eighty-one percent since 1980, may be headed back down. Former Secretary
Carlucci's view: "Block obsolescence of aging ships will make [such lift]
a difficult capability to sustain."
Offsetting these problems, somewhat, are bright spots in
Marine combat aviation (see box) and first deployments of what eventually may
be a force of 100 sea-skimmer Landing Craft Air Cushion vehicles.
Also troubling the fleet, as it seeks continued dominance,
is a danger that its power may be snarled in global politics.
Foreign political complications no longer can be written off
as minor. Gorbachev's demonstrated determination to pursue his broad
arms-control agenda, mixed with changing European views, creates pressures not
Most conspicuous is Moscow's call for including US naval
forces in the twenty-three-nation talks now taking place in Vienna on conventional
reductions. Washington deflects the demand, saying naval power is not directly
relevant to the faceoff on the Central Front. While this stance contradicts
long-standing Navy claims that it would play a decisive role in defeating
Warsaw Pact forces, Washington believes it can finesse the issue, for the moment.
The Cruise Missile
The problem for an important Navy weapon, the long-range conventional
cruise missile, may not be so easily overcome. This weapon—either today's
Tomahawk or the Excalibur planned for tomorrow—is cast for a starring role in
maintaining Navy might. Deployed in thousands on aircraft, ships, and subs,
the Tomahawk/Excalibur will disperse over a "triad" of forces the
strike power now concentrated in a handful of carriers.
The problem is how to deploy conventional versions without
upsetting Soviet ability to verify numbers of the nearly identical nuclear
variant. The Kremlin insists it must be able to do this as part of a Strategic
Arms Reduction Treaty. The US resists limits on conventional Tomahawks and may
have to pay a price—perhaps abandonment of the Navy nuclear types.
The sum of pressures now crowding in on the Navy and
Marines presents a challenge to the newly minted maritime edge bought at great
cost in the Reagan years. Risks, as these organizations see it, are high. If
President Bush harbors any doubts on that score, the sea services are only too
prepared to persuade him.
Already, the naval services are embarked on a drive to
convince Washington of the problems that they say will flow from any failure to
give adequate support—and budgets—to maintain the fleet's power.
One argument is that the US could still come up short in a
major war against Russia. The position of the Navy hierarchy is that Gorbachev's
"new look" in military affairs is at best a modest change and at
worst a ruse. Observes Admiral Trost: "We have seen little slackening in
their building efforts." As a result, US naval needs are unchanged.
Navy leaders also advance a second argument: While the
decline of Soviet power may be an illusion, the apparent rise of other dangers
is not. They say a turbulent global environment—Third World threats to US
interests, loss of foreign bases, terrorism, drug trafficking—all argue for
preserving if not expanding a hard-hitting, mobile, and unilateral military
force. Not doing so, in their view, may lead to a kind of strategic impotence.
In light of these and other factors, some navalists claim
the Pentagon should reexamine budget allocations made to the sea services on
one hand, and the Air Force and Army on the other—a scheme whose chances must
be viewed skeptically on the record of the past. The outcome of that struggle
will leave a lasting imprint on the course of US naval power.
Marine Corps Tools of
In an invasion, Marines will be the first on the beach and
first over it, too. Ongoing Marine aviation programs include:
• Bell-Boeing V-22 Osprey: This aircraft, combining the
vertical takeoff and landing capability of a helicopter with the speed and
carrying capacity of fixed-wing aircraft, is top Marine priority. The Pentagon,
however, is trying to cancel it. First flight was delayed eight months, but
Osprey has ended first stage of flight-testing and will make
helicopter-to-airplane conversion this year. The Air Force and Navy plan to buy
some, but 522 of the 627 go to the Marines.
• McDonnell Douglas AV-8B Harrier II: The West's only
production VTOL attack aircraft is made in cooperation with British Aerospace.
Harrier production is to continue at a rate of twenty-four a year until FY '91.
This will give the Marines 276 aircraft, forty-seven short of the requirement
of 323. Production after FY '91 is possible. Delivery of first production
models of the night-attack type will begin in August. AV-8Bs are stationed at
MCAS Cherry Point, N. C., and MCAS Yuma, Ariz.
• McDonnell Douglas F/A-18 Hornet: USMC's other front-line
tactical aircraft, the F/A-18 is replacing F-4s and A-7s. Marines have 140
Hornets assigned to four Marine Air Groups formed or activating. The first
Marine Reserve Squadron will get its first aircraft this summer. In October,
delivery of the first two-seat, night-attack F/A-18D Hornets will begin. The
stick will be removed from the Radar Intercept Officer station and will be
replaced by two hand-stick controllers.
• Bell Helicopter AH-1W Sea Cobra: The "Super
Cobra" is a far cry from the AH-1s used by the Army in Vietnam. Thirty new
Cobras are on order. Production may continue because the Marine Reserve needs
forty-two replacements for AH-1Js. Modifications to the Super Cobra will
include night-targeting sight—jointly funded by USMC and Israel—and new
navigation system with Doppler radar.
• Grumman EA-6B Prowler: Production of the tactical jamming
aircraft includes twenty-four new Improved Capability (ICAP II) jets bought in
FY 1988-89. ICAP II modifications include a universal exciter, a threat
identification system, and a programmable jammer.
—Jeffrey P. Rhodes
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