A month or so ago, I put up a post on my home blog about Sea Blindness, by which is meant the seeming inability of Americans to grasp that, while “the U.S. is not quite an island nation, it is a nation deeply dependent on the seas and the free flow of commerce across them.” During Midrats Episode 216 (at about 19:51), I asked our guest, Seth Cropsey, about “sea blindness” and whether the time had come for our senior naval leaders to tell the elected civilian leaders that the Navy has reached the point at which there are missions and areas we cannot perform or cover with the size Navy we currently have and are projected to have in the near term.

A couple of weeks ago, the Chief of Naval Operations, Admiral Greenert went before the House Armed Services Committee and did a little “Counter-Sea Blindness” work, both in his written testimony and in his spoken words.
First, from his prepared written testimony:

Chairman, as I testified before you in September 2013, I am troubled by the prospects of reverting to the BCA revised caps in FY2016. That would lead to a Navy that is just too small and lacking the advanced capabilities needed to execute the missions the nation expects of its Navy. We would be unable to execute at least 4 of the 10 primary missions that are laid out very clearly in the Defense Strategic Guidance and QDR.

Even more, according to Military.com, “CNO Tells Congress the US Needs 450-Ship Navy”

Chief of Naval Operations Adm. Jonathan Greenert told lawmakers Wednesday that the Navy would need a 450-ship fleet in order to meet the global needs of combatant commanders.

“For us to meet what combatant commanders request, we need a Navy of 450 ships,” he told the House Armed Services Committee.

Officially, the Navy’s position is to achieve a 306-ship fleet by the end of the decade, service officials said. At the moment there are 289 ships in the Navy, according to service officials who said the number reflects a new method of counting ships.

As Claude Berube wrote somewhere, when the big headline news was the Army being cut to pre-WWII levels, the Navy had already been cut to pre-WWI levels. See here, where it shows the fleet in April 1917 had 342 ships.

Admiral Greenert and Secretary Mabus deserve praise for standing up on this issue.

However, that message needs to be spread further and faster – that the U.S. Navy – the flexible forward presence that this country depends on for freedom of the seas and protection of both vital sea lines of communication and helping its allies abroad- is becoming too small to carry out 40% of its primary missions. We are, even given the more generous counting system, about 170 ships short of what we need. It does little good to assert that today’s ships are much more capable than the ships of yesteryear – even a more capable ship can only be one place at a time and can only occupy so much sea space.

When you are short of ships you resort to other ways to maximize presence – longer deployments, crew-swapping, more rapid turn-arounds between deployments, deferred maintenance. All of which lead to burn outs of personnel and equipment.

This is not something sprung upon us overnight. In 2011, Mackenzie Eaglen and Brian McGrath wrote a excellent paper on Thinking About a Day Without Sea Power: Implications for U.S. Defense Policy and noted the effects of fleet size reduction:

Building the current level of American sea power has taken enormous resources and many decades, and the size of the fleet is not likely to be dramatically reduced in the near term. More likely, incremental cuts based on faulty premises and a lack of strategic direction will, over time, diminish American sea power as the country’s vision of itself becomes more modest and its sense of destiny and centrality is reduced. While ill-considered procurement reductions will slowly reduce the number of ships and aircraft in the Navy, financial decisions could also erode the Navy’s ability to deploy credible and relevant forces persistently, regardless of how many ships the Navy may have.
Today’s Navy is experiencing extreme levels of stress. While the fleet has shrunk by about 15 percent since 1998, the number of ships deployed overseas has remained constant at about 100. Each ship goes to sea longer and more often, resulting in problems such as the well-publicized shortfalls in surface ship condition. With no surge capacity left in the fleet, each new casualty ripples through the schedules of dozens of ships. With the end of supplemental funding, Navy maintenance funding will be cut by almost 20 percent this year. In this context, a relatively small additional reduction in maintenance funding could render a Navy with 250–280 ships capable of keeping only 50 to 60 ships at sea.

You can listen to Mackenzie and Bryan discuss this paper on Midrats Episode 74.

Those “faulty premises and a lack of strategic direction” are exactly the symptoms of “Sea Blindness” that have gotten us this tipping point of fleet size.

As stated above, it is good that the CNO and SecNav are speaking out on this issue- but that is not enough. More voices need to spread the word of the vital importance of sea power to this country and the facts of what the reduction of fleet size on this country.

The cure to “sea blindness” is sunlight – shining light on the situation. Those of us who believe in a strong Navy must spread the word of what the Navy does and why a larger fleet is vital to our national interests and defense.

“Help cure sea blindness” by writing and speaking at every legal opportunity about the danger of the reduced size of our fleet.

SecNav and CNO have made a start.

The follow-on is up to us.

Posted by Mark Tempest in Maritime Security, Navy

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  • As you say, a start, but we’ll have to press home the issue at every opportunity. Thank you for sharing.

  • Derrick Lau

    I have a few stupid questions: Why did the Malaysian airlines flight MH370 disappear from radars, in particular US military ones? Doesn’t the US military monitor the skies in case of sneak attack/terrorism/etc.? Is there a potential gap the US navy could fill in situations similar to this? Isn’t the Indian Ocean patrolled regularly by US warships? To help explain myself, I was just wondering why flight MH370 disappeared from radars, when I assumed that the US navy/military would always be watching the skies over the oceans as standard procedure? Would this be a practical example of “sea blindness”?

    • grandpabluewater

      Derrick: In order:

      The planet is very large and the seas are 3/4 of the surface area. We have few deployed ships in comparison to the surface area of the earth, and they are very busy in areas of immediate concern… which this area is not.

      Malaysia is neutral in effect (not much ability as an ally, but good will valued), and we seldom visit in any numbers, only transiting a key strait or two and concentrating mostly on collision avoidance. Airliners are noted, tracked as non-threat civilian contacts, and in due time, scrubbed. Which flight on what schedule for what route is of no concern to anyone, but the local nation’s air traffic controllers.

      The USN is short handed and short of task forces, so no, filling in is not the Navy’s circuit. No bucks-no buck rogers.

      NOBODY patrols the IO south of Diego Garcia except local coastal African navies (snicker) and Australia. In general, off the major sea lanes, the local forces who patrol what was once “East of Suez” are mostly patrol craft without air search radars – except the Indian and Australian coasts out to 200 NM. Even there, their task forces only pass through once in a while. Oz has some few P3 MPA and India has something less and lower capability, although they want to improve so bad they can taste it.

      The middle of the Big Blue is lonesome and unmarred by the works of man for huge distances.

      You can’t do more with less, you only can do less; which means you must prioritize in order to do anything at all. In any case, the USN and the Royal Navy together couldn’t do it all in the late fifties when we had over a thousand ships and the RN and RSAN and RAN had maybe half that. Now we have little over 250 and the RN’s numbers are about half of the ships at half of the piers in Norfolk. Remember, two ships back to keep one forward…at best. The norm these days has a fair bit of less than “best”.

      The “sea blindness” is yours, since you know nothing of this. And….you know more than most.