The End of the American Century?
By TOM PHILPOTT
Warning to mariners: If an American warship approaches, get out of the
way. It is overworked, possibly undermanned, and almost certainly in
Last February, two aircraft carrier battle groups (CVBGs), headed by
the nuclear-powered carriers USS Nimitz and USS George Washington, patrolled
the Persian Gulf, keeping Iraq from violating the U.N. "no-fly zone," protecting
U-2 surveillance aircraft--which Saddam Hussein had threatened to shoot
down--and preparing to strike Iraqi targets if U.N. weapon inspectors
were not allowed to resume their work. It was a typical deployment in
the post-Cold War era--and was repeated in November.
But it was the Nimitz CVBG's race to get to the Gulf that perhaps better
captures the Navy's frenetic pace as commitments grow and the size of
the fleet continues to fall.
Nimitz and six escort ships were in Hong Kong in October 1997 when ordered
to steam to the Gulf at "best speed." Forest fires in Indonesia
had left a thick haze across the Strait of Malacca, 500 miles of bustling
sea lanes "like Interstate 95 for ships," said Rear Adm. John
P. Nathman, then the battle group commander.
Days before, with no U.S. carrier in the Gulf, Iraqi jets had violated
the no-fly zone below Baghdad by chasing Iranian warplanes. So Nimitz
now sped through the strait like a police cruiser after a bank robber,
"Nimitz was going 30 knots the whole time," said Nathman. "With
smoke and haze from the fires, visibility was a quarter mile at best.
We had [other mariners] yelling, 'Hey Americans! You ... ' Giving us
a hard time. We're saying, 'See ya. We gotta go.' The whole battle group's
that way. ... We're ducking a lot of folks. ... High speed, little visibility
on a ship 95,000 tons, hauling butt. ... Forty hours through a tremendous
amount of traffic.
"It says an awful lot about how really good we are sometimes," Nathman
It says an awful lot, too, about how stretched the Navy and its 12 "flattops" have
become as operational contingencies sprout up like weeds, and the only
weed-control trucks are flying the Stars and Stripes.
Problems and Pitfalls
But 1998 was not just another busy year for U.S. forces. Several disturbing
trends emerged. In late September, the Joint Chiefs of Staff appeared
before the Senate Armed Services Committee to warn the nation that readiness
is dropping. If projected budgets are not raised, if contingency operations
do not slow, if pay and retirement benefits do not improve, if the economy
stays robust, then the U.S. military could return to the "hollow
force" era of the late 1970s--within five years, the Joint Chiefs
Adm. Jay L. Johnson, chief of naval operations, presented a partial
list of Navy woes:
Some degradation in deployed readiness due to personnel shortages, with
15,000 at-sea billets, mostly junior enlisted, now vacant.
A deeper erosion of readiness with nondeployed ships and aircraft. Carrier
air wings have hit their lowest level of preparedness in a decade.
Aircraft mishaps nearly doubled in 1998, probably due to the reduced
training time available for squadrons ashore (grounded for lack of spare
parts, or because there is not enough fuel to meet flying-hour goals).
Navy funds to upgrade weapons systems and equipment have fallen more
than 50 percent since 1990. Aging equipment requires more frequent repairs,
causing longer work days for Sailors and strained maintenance budgets--which,
in turn, raises the risk of mishaps.
The maintenance backlog at Navy bases and facilities is now estimated
at $2.5 billion and will surpass $4 billion in three years.
Shipbuilding budgets allow construction of only 6-7 ships a year--not
enough to sustain the 305-ship fleet mandated by the 1997 Quadrennial
Defense Review (QDR). The Navy needs 8-10 new ships a year to stay above
the QDR requirement.
Navy missed its recruiting goal for 1998 by about 7,200 recruits. Prospects
for meeting future goals are dim, particularly if the economy stays strong.
Enlisted retention is 6-8 percentage points below requirements; competition
from private industry is particularly fierce for skilled technicians
Mid-level officer retention is down not only among pilots but also among
submarine, surface, and special warfare officers.
Reform initiatives endorsed by the QDR have so far failed to produce
the cost savings projected--and which are urgently needed to fill widening
Navy budget gaps.
"We can't sustain the Navy with the budgets we have," Johnson
concluded. "Our Sailors are counting on us to do something now." The
CNO estimated that his service needs $6 billion more per year, plus whatever
funds are required to raise pay significantly and reform the "Redux" retirement
plan. That plan, worth 25 percent less than the retirement plan it replaced,
applies to anyone who first entered the military after 31 July 1986. The
Joint Chiefs argue that Redux is driving skilled career personnel from
Fixing retirement, said Johnson, is the Navy's top near-term priority.
Fixing shipbuilding is the chief long-term goal.
Hectic Pace of Operations
Keeping two carriers in the Gulf for six months "showed us how
fragile the system has become," Johnson said. "We did it, [and]
we're proud of it, but the ripple effect is profound."
The Navy has a role in almost every major U.S. military operation, and
there were 15 such operations in just the first half of 1998, Johnson
said. "We knew '98 would be a challenge for us," he told Sea
Power. "It was more challenging than we thought."
So far, operational and personnel tempo promises to Sailors have been
kept. Still, they are spending more time at sea. The optempo rule says
that Sailors must get 12 months in homeport for every six months deployed.
The trouble is, said Vice Adm. Conrad C. Lautenbacher Jr., deputy chief
of naval operations for resources, warfare requirements, and assessments,
the Navy was able until recently to achieve a better turnaround ratio
than the 2-to-1 ratio postulated--18 months at home for every six months
gone was common. But not anymore. "We don't have 600 ships. We have
337," said Lautenbacher. The ships still must patrol the same hubs
of instability in the Mediterranean, Southwest and Southeast Asia, and
the Western Pacific. Ships are more capable today, but their numbers
continue to fall--and "numbers still count," said Lautenbacher.
"It puts a real premium on every unit being ready to do its part," he
said. Five years ago about 42 percent of the Navy's ships were underway
at any time, either deployed or on training operations. That figure is
close to 55 percent now and threatens to break a key optempo goal--namely,
that ships not spend more than half of any five-year period at sea.
The percentage of ships on six-month deployment also has risen, from
just over 20 percent in 1993 to more than 30 percent now. "That's
a Navy running at full bore," said Lautenbacher. "There's no
more slack. We're deploying ships and squadrons about as fast as we can
without breaking either people, parts, or training."
Vice Adm. Daniel T. Oliver, chief of naval personnel, said that about
140 Sailors a month are "cross-decked" from one ship returning
from deployment to another where their skills are needed. The number
of cross-decked Sailors has not changed in several years, he said, but
as ship numbers fall the relative size of the problem increases.
"Although we are programming to fill 90 percent of [crew] requirements
at sea, we have not gotten 90 percent of the people," said Oliver.
Less than half of the Navy's ships have the highest personnel readiness
rating of C-1--which means that 90 percent or more of authorized billets
Rear Adm. Michael G. Mullen, director of surface warfare, commanded
the George Washington battle group until last April. "The demands
we're placing on our people are, in my 30-year experience, at an all-time
high," he said.
Once deployed, ships spend more time underway, less time in liberty
ports. The underway percentage is now 85 to 90, up from the 70s a few
years ago. "There's an impact there," said CNO Johnson. "When
we go to sea we expect to work hard. But 'Join the Navy, See the World'
means some quality port visits and downtime. We've had a challenge keeping
[that promise]. ... In-port time is very limited."
Navy leaders agree that deployed readiness remains quite high despite
personnel shortages. "Every time we were asked to pull the trigger,
we pulled the trigger, and very precisely," said Johnson. He lauded
the "crispness" of the Navy's response to an array of contingencies,
ranging from armed showdowns in the Gulf to Navy divers recovering remains
from the SwissAir crash off Nova Scotia, to naval construction battalions
clearing debris and repairing roads in the aftermath of Hurricane Georges
in the Caribbean.
Nondeployed Forces Pay the Penalty
But the price of deployed readiness is paid by Sailors and units left
behind. "Nondeployed readiness has sunk too low," said Lautenbacher. "We're
all getting a little nervous."
Readiness always drops when ships and aircraft return from overseas
deployments. Crews take leave or transfer. Equipment goes into overhaul.
Readiness slips into what Navy calls "the bathtub." But the
bathtub has gotten too deep in the last couple of years, said Vice Adm.
Thomas B. Fargo, deputy CNO for plans, policy, and operations. "The
bottoms are lower, down in the C-3 to C-4 range. And the sides of the
bathtubs are steeper. The effort to get back up on the step to deploy
is tougher," Fargo said.
With a smaller fleet, and still falling, the Navy can no longer allow
a ship or aircraft squadron to spend an extra two or three months in
port for more training or for unanticipated repairs.
"There's no replacement," said Lautenbacher. "So you
end up working them harder. ... The pressure is on. Sailors are scrambling.
Officers are pushing. The system is on them to ensure they make their
next deployment because there aren't any spares. That's what you're seeing
in terms of pace of operations."
A deeper "bathtub" also affects "surge capability" in
times of war or other crises, said Fargo. "Those folks are going
to be in a lower state of readiness when you sound the alarm." To
reduce the workload, Johnson in October ordered fleets to cut interdeployment
training cycles by 25 percent.
"We add inspections, new requirements, all the stuff guys like
me levy on the fleet to help them do their jobs. One day we asked ourselves,
'When's the last time we took something off?' And we had a hell of a
time answering that question," Johnson said.
Expanding Threat Environment
On 7 August, terrorists bombed U.S. embassies in Nairobi, Kenya, and
Dar es Salaam, Tanzania, killing more than 200 people and injuring thousands.
Twelve Americans, including three service members, died.
Less than two weeks later, the United States struck back with cruise
missile attacks on terrorist training camps in Afghanistan and a chemical
factory in Sudan, part of the terrorism infrastructure of Osama bin Laden,
a dissident Saudi millionaire who wants the United States out of all
Muslim nations. The strikes against bin Laden, said Mullen, were "a
real sea change" in the U.S. response to terrorism. "More active,
more aggressive, more offensive."
To keep terrorists in the dark, the Defense Department refused to release
information on the operation--including whether surface ships, submarines,
or aircraft launched the missiles. That was fine with Johnson. "This
is asymmetric warfare, and we've got to be very careful, and perhaps
not as forthcoming on personnel details as we had been in the past," he
To reduce the biological threat to U.S. service members from regimes
like Saddam Hussein's, the military last year began mandatory anthrax
vaccinations of the entire force. Threats against the United States turned "more
diverse, more unpredictable" in 1998, said Johnson. The Office of
Naval Intelligence (ONI) recently changed its focus, from countries that
might intend to harm the United States to sources of the greatest threats
against U.S. maritime systems. The results were surprising, said Paul
Lowell, deputy director of naval intelligence. The Navy found that only
12 nations conduct a full range of naval research, development, testing,
and evaluation. Ten are allies. The other two, Russia and China, are "not
high on anybody's threat list," said Earl E. Sheck, an assistant
director in ONI. But those 12 nations supply the vast majority of weapon
systems that one day could be used against the U.S. Navy.
"There are almost no controls on exports or proliferation of any
of that technology," said Sheck. "There is some in the missile
community but almost anything else, any state-of-art weapon system, is
available to anybody who has the money. You can literally buy a Navy
if you want to today."
Often enough, governments are not in control. "It's not the German
government doing submarine development. It's industries within Germany.
That's why this whole idea of looking at countries anymore is losing
its focus. We really need to focus on naval-related industry worldwide
and see what it's producing," Sheck said.
Russian technology, for example, has allowed the People's Republic of
China to skip a generation in its development of nuclear submarines.
Russia's willingness to sell submarine quieting technology to several
countries, including Iran and China, has made the submarines of those
countries more difficult to track.
But purchasing nations are not wedded to a particular supplier. They
might buy quieting technology from Russia but advanced communications
gear from any of several Western nations. Assessing the overall capability
of such hybrid systems is a challenge. Analysts had an easier time of
it when the Soviet Union supplied almost all weapons to potential adversaries.
Capabilities were known and easier to counter.
Today, the Navy might not know what it will face in a conflict--unless
naval intelligence can stay on top of such information. "It might
have been okay 15 years ago to understand the general characteristics
of a cruise missile. How fast, how big, how far could it fly, what fire
control system launched it. Then you could engage it," said Sheck. "That
whole countermeasure, counter-countermeasure issue today requires really
Progress and Setbacks
The U.S. Navy made several strides in 1998 to keep its technological
edge, but there were problems as well. IT-21 (Information Technology
for the 21st Century) systems were installed on some ships based in Japan
and some in the Atlantic Fleet. But the installations "were a little
rough," said Vice Adm. John T. Natter, director in OPNAV of Space,
Information Warfare, Command and Control.
IT-21 is a group of systems--data and voice transmission, video teleconferencing,
still-picture transfer--that a command and its subordinate commands can
use to more rapidly communicate intentions, intelligence, decisions,
and plans. "If you can gather intelligence, discern what it provides,
lay out a plan, direct execution--all of it faster than the enemy--then
you get him on the run," said Natter.
But in 1998, he said, the Navy saw "some of the downside of not
having IT-21 in place for your entire force. Because you're only as fast
as your slowest moving subunit." The Navy wants the systems installed
as quickly as possible throughout the fleet, but the pace of progress
will depend on funding. Lautenbacher said that IT-21 Navywide is unlikely
Another IT-21 hurdle is what to do about allies who are not included
in the network. "They are very concerned [about] their ability to
stay up with us in this communication round," said Natter. "We
are working to better wire them into the IT-21 scheme. But it's going
to be difficult. We've got security issues, they've got their own security
issues with other contingency partners, and there's [also] the cost."
The Navy also had problems in 1998 with the much-touted Cooperative
Engagement Capability (CEC)--which will allow the realtime sharing between
platforms of sensor and targeting information to produce the most effective
firing solution against incoming missiles or aircraft.
"We experienced a fairly serious interoperability problem between
CEC and the Aegis weapons system," said Mullen. "We've added
a tremendous amount of capability to both programs over time. Integrating
them has turned out to be more of a challenge than we realized."
Mullen said the problem will take "a couple of years" to solve.
But he also sees a silver lining in the CEC setback. "It's indicative
of the kinds of interoperability problems all the services are going
to have to solve, long term," he said. "So we hope solving
this is a model for the future."
Natter's top priority for 1999 is addressing the Year 2000 (Y2K) problem.
Most computer chips, from those found in sophisticated weapon systems
to dining-hall refrigeration systems, have been programmed with only
two digits representing any given year. The fear now is that at the stroke
of midnight on 31 December 1999 those systems will read the new year, "00," as
the year 1900 and either shut down or begin punching out incorrect data.
In 1998, the Navy began committing resources to the problem in earnest.
Natter takes it very seriously, calling Y2K the "approaching brick
wall." At risk is the proper operation of ships, aircraft, submarines,
and "a myriad of systems throughout our shore infrastructure," Natter
said. There is no "magic solution," he added, just "a
lot of dog work by engineers, scientists, and electronic folks."
The Navy will protect first its records, then operational platform systems,
and finally the systems that feed or support operational units. "I'm
confident we're addressing the problem," said Natter. "Could
we have started earlier? Yes. Would it have helped? We're doing almost
as much as humanly possible and can't afford to do anything less."
Shortfalls in Modernization
Despite the QDR's admonition that the Navy should stop raiding its weapon-modernization
accounts to cover short-term readiness needs, the practice continued
in 1998, Johnson conceded. The Navy just does not have money enough to
train its people, respond to contingencies, and still protect the funds
needed for ship and aircraft recapitalization.
The Navy needs to decommission 30 more ships to reach the QDR goal of
305. But if shipbuilding budgets do not increase, Johnson said, the Navy
will be "on a pathway that takes us well below 300 ships."
The budgets currently projected, said Lautenbacher, will see the Navy "fall
into the 270-ship range in the early part of the next century." That
might be avoided by keeping some ships beyond their recommended service
lives--but maintenance costs would then rise, he said. He compared the
shipbuilding account to a "frontier town" movie set. "Open
the door and what's behind it? A bunch of sticks holding up this wonderful
facade. Looks great, but you've got to start filling in the modernization
Lean budgets are impacting equipment upgrades as well. "We're down
to 40 percent of what we used to do [in equipment modifications]," said
Lautenbacher. "That's been a heavy loss to us. ... We're effectively
aging our equipment faster than we have done in previous years."
Surface Fleet Modernization
The surface Navy wants to modernize its current ships and buy new ones.
The fiscal year 1999 budget includes $2.7 billion to build three more
Burke-class destroyers. By 2000, the fleet will be down to 116 surface
combatants, the QDR target. "A number below that would concern me
greatly," said Mullen.
The FY 1999 budget also authorizes $88.5 million in research and development
(R&D) for the final Nimitz-class carrier, CVN 77, and $110 million
in R&D for the follow-on "CVX" carrier. In October, the
Defense Acquisition Board approved the Navy's request that the CVX be
a large-deck ship--big enough to accommodate 75 aircraft--and nuclear-powered
Given the current demands on the Navy's already undersized fleet, nothing
else made sense, suggested Adm. Frank Bowman, director of naval nuclear
propulsion. The Navy's ability to "answer the bell" today,
Bowman said, is made possible primarily because nuclear power provides
unprecedented endurance and multimission capabilities to carriers and
submarines. The Navy will continue to need the most "robust platforms" it
can build, he said.
In the first several decades following World War II, Bowman pointed
out, the United States built 176 air bases overseas. U.S. forces have
access today to only 24 of them. That is another argument for large-deck
nuclear-powered carriers, he said. Nuclear power does cost more, said
Bowman. "But we're building a warship, not investing in a savings
The higher cost, he continued, buys "the mobility, flexibility,
and endurance [needed] to scamper from one part of the world to another,
unsupported logistically, without having to set up the supply train in
front or in back, even able to fuel escorts as you go."
Congress authorized another $85 million in the FY 1999 budget to continue
development of the DD-21 Land- Attack Destroyer. Two teams of contractors,
led by Bath Iron Works and Lockheed Martin, continued to work through
1998 on their competing designs for DD-21, which is scheduled to join
the fleet in 2008.
The Navy plans four upgrades to its Aegis cruisers, inserting the systems
needed for land-attack capability, area air defense, and theater ballistic
missile defense--as well as "Smart Ship" improvements designed
to boost operating efficiencies and cut crew size. The current plan,
said Mullen, is to convert 12 of the fleet's 24 Aegis cruisers through
2004. Finding the money will be a challenge, he said, but if the cruisers
are not modernized they will become obsolete. He noted that seven Spruance-class
destroyers are now being decommissioned because years ago they had not
been backfitted with vertical-launch missile systems.
There were encouraging advances in naval surface fire support in 1998,
particularly with the successful firing of a new five-inch gun--projected
to be installed on 49 surface combatants starting in 2001. The new gun
will be able to use current five-inch rounds as well as new long-range
rounds that will be effective out to 63 miles.
The Navy also tested a Land-Attack Standard Missile last year that could
strike well beyond 5-inch gun range--with greater speed and for less
cost than a cruise missile.
Finally, the Navy approved development of a "tactical" cruise
missile for use in both surface ships and submarines that could enter
production by 2003. It would be able to loiter over targets, send back
battle-damage information, and be retargeted in flight.
Advances in Naval Aviation
Congress also approved the purchase of 30 more F/A-18E/F Super Hornet
strike aircraft in 1999 to help replace the retired A-6 Intruder and
the aging fleet of F-14 Tomcats. Another $478 million was authorized
for Navy Joint Strike Fighter (JSF) development in 1999. JSF is the next-generation
combat aircraft and will feature a common airframe and structural components
in Navy, Marine Corps, and Air Force variants.
The EA-6B Prowler, which jams enemy radar and communications to protect
U.S. ships and aircraft, will receive $100 million in modifications to
counter a new family of target-acquisition radars. Prowlers carry out
the radar-jamming mission for all of the nation's armed services. But
there are not enough of them, said Lautenbacher. "That community
is working very hard," he said.
The readiness of nondeployed aircraft squadrons has been hit even harder
than that of surface ships. "Right now we don't have quite enough
airframes," said Nathman. Tight budgets produced part shortages,
which in turn slowed maintenance, which in turn reduced aircraft availability.
Pilots have had delays in training between deployments, making it more
difficult to prepare for their next deployment. And it shows. "They
don't compete particularly well," said Nathman.
CNO Johnson is worried that the training deficiencies have been a factor
in the increase in aircraft accident rates. In 1998, the rate climbed
from 1.7 accidents per 100,000 flying hours to 2.5 accidents. On a percentage
basis, that jump looks alarming--almost 50 percent. But Nathman points
out that the 1.7 rate in 1997 was the best in naval aviation history.
For the decade, the rate has been almost flat: about three accidents
per 100,000 hours. Viewed in that context, a 2.5 rate does not look too
bad. But it was 12 more accidents than happened a year earlier.
"The CNO is concerned that if you don't make the investment in
your folks, but still put them in the same high-pressure operational
context--deployed, flying off of aircraft carriers day and night, no
matter what the weather, over real bad-guy territory ... you increase
their risk," Nathman said.
Cannibalization rates--removing parts from one aircraft to repair another--are
too high among nondeployed squadrons, Nathman said. "It impacts
our training rates, our ability to support flying hours for young pilots." The
communities hit hardest are the S-3 Viking surveillance aircraft and
Faced with tough choices, the Navy underfunded its aircraft maintenance
and flying-hour accounts for several years. "In a way we bought
our own problem," Nathman said. Those accounts are now fully funded,
but a turnaround will take time. "I'm sitting here telling you from
a Washington, D.C., perspective how we're going to get better," Nathman
said. "But tomorrow you can go to several S-3 or E-2 or EA-6B squadrons
that don't have enough airplanes. It's all aggravated by the inability
to make those investments we knew we needed to make but didn't have the
money. The trade we're making now is pulling money out of modernization
to pay for near-term readiness. And that's a concern."
Pilot retention still is declining, but the Navy problem is not as severe
as that experienced by the Air Force. The retention bonus "take
rate" is a disappointing 35 percent--the Navy's goal is 50 percent.
Many of the pilots and aviation technicians departing say pay is too
"They joined the service to serve their country," said Nathman. "But
you ought to be able to compete with someone next door who doesn't have
the risk, who doesn't have to deploy. That's why the chiefs are going
after the Redux retirement issue and the pay gap."
In April, construction began on the first of the Navy's new attack submarines,
or NSSNs. In October, the first NSSN was named the Virginia, and Congress
authorized $2 billion to build the second ship in the class.
The fleet now has 65 nuclear-powered attack submarines (SSNs), with
16 forward-deployed. The total number will drop sharply, to 50 SSNs by
2003. By then perhaps as few as 10 attack submarines at a time will be
on patrol. Bowman said that that would create a shortage, and that worries
the warfighting CINCs. A new study on submarines, being conducted by
the Joint Chiefs and due out in March 1999, is expected to set a higher
Even if it does, though, too few submarines are now in production to
stop the slide--and the service life of attack submarines, given the
stress on hulls of multiple dives and ascents, usually cannot be extended,
There is a good chance that the Navy may even slip below 50 SSNs. The
only way to avoid doing so, said Rear Adm. Malcolm Fages, director of
submarine warfare for OPNAV, is to build two to three Virginia-class
boats per year starting about 2005. With the Navy expecting to have to
pay for the CVX, several new types of aircraft, a new logistics ship,
and other platforms and systems during the same time frame, Fages said, "I
don't know how we're going to get there."
In October, the Electric Boat Division of General Dynamics in Connecticut
and Newport News Shipbuilding in Virginia signed the first-ever teaming
arrangement to build submarines. The deal covers the first four Virginia-class
The Navy plans to backfit more advanced, off-the-shelf sonar systems
into its newer Los Angeles-class submarines--i.e., those expected to
still be operating in 15 years. The new systems will have 200 times more
processing power than the current Los Angeles-class sonars. The upgrade
is funded in the Navy's current FYDP (future-years defense plan). In
1998, systems required for the first phase of a four-phase upgrade were
installed for testing aboard two submarines. If all goes well, the Navy
will do the same with Los Angeles-class combat fire control systems and
radio rooms. "Basically," said Fages, "we see ... [this]
as a very viable way to reduce life-cycle costs on our submarines."
Bowman noted that a Defense Science Board study on future submarine
design calls the nuclear attack submarine "a crown jewel in the
nation's arsenal"--and agrees with Bowman that, "we need more
[SSNs], not fewer."
It might surprise some, said Bowman, that he agrees with the report's
conclusion that, if resources are constrained, R&D money should be
applied to improving the "front end" of the submarine--new
weapon payloads, new sensors, towed-array and other sonars, improved
computer processing--rather than the "back end," the reactor
and propulsion system. "I endorse that," Bowman said.
The same study supports Navy plans to convert some Trident ballistic
missile submarines into SSGN models that would be able to store and launch
six to seven cruise missiles in 22 of the 24 missile tubes on each boat.
Congress asked for a study in 1999 on the viability of the SSGN concept.
Bowman said the idea sounds good, but pointed out that SSBNs also can
be converted into other kinds of platforms. "I worry that we not
get too enamored with that initial idea," he said.
If DOD and Congress approve the idea, one or more SSBNs could be converted
to SSGNs by about 2005. Next year the Navy will have to decide how to
divide its 14 remaining Trident submarines between the Atlantic and Pacific.
One encouraging note: Nondeployed readiness has not fallen as far in
the submarine force as it has in the surface fleet, Bowman said. When
dealing with nuclear reactor safety, the Navy just cannot allow it.
Amphibious Forces Maintain Busy Schedule
Congress authorized $638 million in the FY 1999 budget for advance procurement
of the second of the new San Antonio (LPD 17) class of amphibious transport
dock ships. The nation's lawmakers refused, however, to approve Navy
plans to conduct a service life extension program (SLEP) on the first
of the Tarawa-class amphibious assault ships (LHAs). Each SLEP would
have cost $1 billion, and the LHAs would lose both storage and deck space,
limiting their ability to haul such littoral warfare equipment as the
LCACs and the Marine Corps' new tiltrotor V-22 Osprey aircraft. Congress
approved spending $50 million instead on long-lead material for an eighth
Wasp-class amphibious assault ship (LHD).
The current 43-ship amphibious force is slated to fall to 36 ships as
the Navy completes a shift to a dozen three-ship amphibious ready groups.
ARGs now have five or six ships.
Whether three ships or five, they stay busy. In 1998, the Navy's ARGs
participated in contingencies, large and small, all over the globe, checking
aggression, evacuating Americans from danger, and providing disaster
relief in areas devastated by hurricanes or flooding.
"The carrier battle group is big and sexy with airplanes off the
deck. Everybody loves it. I'm a pilot; I do too," said Maj. Gen.
Dennis T. Krupp, director of the expeditionary warfare division in OPNAV. "But
ARGs show the flag all over the world and [mean so much] to the little
person in a country that needs help, whether it's saving his life in
a hostile fire situation or because there's been a flood.
"That little guy doesn't know whether that Marine comes from an
amphibious ready group or from a carrier. But he knows he came from the
sea and helped him."
ARGs now pack equipment and supplies in anticipation that the group
might have to split during any given deployment to conduct separate missions
simultaneously. Like carrier battle groups, Krupp said, ARGs are smaller
than before, but busier than ever.
CNO Johnson announced in 1998 that the Navy hopes to upgrade all of
its ships by 2006 with an "organic" mine countermeasure capability--most
likely in the form of unmanned underwater vehicles that detect and destroy
mines in the littoral.
"Right now, the battle group commander who comes up against a minefield
has no capability," said Krupp. Two minehunting ships are now based
in the Persian Gulf. But if ships confront mines elsewhere in the world,
it could take weeks to get the minehunters or minesweepers needed to
The Challenge Ahead
Although buffeted by readiness challenges, the sea services also find
considerable excitement as they approach the final years of the 20th
century. The importance of carrier battle groups and expeditionary forces
has never been clearer, said Nathman. Warfighting commanders in chief,
in particular, recognize this strategic reality as they grow increasingly
frustrated in seeking diplomatic approval to stage operations from bases
outside the United States.
"This is our era," Krupp said. "Nobody else can do what
we do--move ships that have planes on them, naval guns, and Marines;
do missions from humanitarian relief up to high-intensity conflict, on
any platform. That's one heck of a capability. And we don't have to ask
'Mother, may I?'"
But CNO Johnson said that America's Sailors still need a "clear
signal" in the year 2000 budget that pay and retirement will improve,
and that they will have the equipment they need to do their jobs. "This
is the time to do it," he said. Otherwise, the decline in readiness
TOM PHILPOTT, a freelance journalist, has spent more than 20 years covering
the U.S. military as a reporter and editor, including more than six years
as editor of Navy Times. His articles have appeared in the Proceedings
of the U.S. Naval Institute, The Washingtonian Magazine, and Readers
Digest. In May 1994 he began syndicating a weekly news column, Military
Update, which now appears in 50 daily newspapers that strive to keep
military readers informed.