The Commander of U.S. Fleet Forces Command, ADM John C. Harvey, Jr., spoke at the USNI-sponsored Joint Warfighting Conference in Virginia Beach. He used the Navy’s recent experience with the joint force as a way to emphasize that the joint force is only as strong as the foundation upon which it is built: the strength and capabilities of the individual service branches. But he also spoke about the Navy’s recent experience to demonstrate a the challenge of balancing meeting Combatant Commander’s needs with ensuring the readiness of the force.
That the U.S. Navy has essentially been at a wartime tempo of operations for years now is not new. The price of that tempo of operations is known to be burning through the service life of platforms faster than anticipated, missed maintenance and proficiency training in core competencies. An average of some 50 ships a year cross redlines in order to meet operational demands. The Admiral made a point of the fact that the Fleet Response Plan’s intention of improving operational availability and surge capacity had been successful, but that the Combatant Commands began to gobble up not just the expanded availability but the surge capacity intended for a major wartime scenario. His point was to emphasize the need institutionally to balance the needs of the joint force with the imperative of the naval service to sustain the fleet for the long term, especially since there is no prospect of the navy having extra room in its shipbuilding budget to replace existing platforms early.
Part of this is institutional. Part of this is being more honest with ourselves and the Combatant Commands about what we can and cannot provide without crossing redlines that should be respected short of major wartime scenarios. But with no prospect in the near future of a reduction in demands by the Combatant Commands, part of the solution must also be how the Navy fulfills operational requirements.
In this context, I caught a news article reiterating the intention to move a carrier to Mayport, Florida by 2019 at the cost of more than half a billion dollars (if things happen on time and on budget). As if our problem is the strategic dispersal of the fleet when we already have carriers home ported at four different locations (counting the forward-deployed USS George Washington in Yokosuka, Japan). I’m not a sailor, but I have often wondered why there has not been more investment in overseas facilities (I tend to think about Australia in particular in this context) to expand the quantity of forward deployed assets. The concept of operations for the Littoral Combat Ship remains to be proven but the rotation of crews and lower-level maintenance being conducted at forward facilities (or perhaps by tenders) seems something worth revisiting on a wider scale.