Navy Ends Retreat On Ship Inventory

The Navy has determined that it must start expanding its shipbuilding immediately, after years of drastic reductions in the post-Cold War era has left the service at half of its peak strength. The New York Times reports that even a modest increase in ship-building may not get the necessary funding from Congress, however:

The plan by Adm. Michael G. Mullen, who took over as chief of naval operations last summer, envisions a major shipbuilding program that would increase the 281-ship fleet by 32 vessels and cost more than $13 billion a year, $3 billion more than the current shipbuilding budget, the officials said Friday.
While increasing the fleet size is popular with influential members of Congress, the plan faces various obstacles, including questions about whether it is affordable in light of ballooning shipbuilding costs and whether the mix of vessels is suitable to deal with emerging threats, like China’s expanding navy.
“We are at a crisis in shipbuilding,” a senior Navy official said. “If we don’t start building this up next year and the next year and the next year, we won’t have the force we need.” The officials would not agree to be identified because the plan had not been made public or described to members of Congress.
The Navy’s fleet reached its cold war peak of 568 warships in 1987 and has been steadily shrinking since then. Admiral Mullen’s proposal would reverse that, expanding the fleet to as many as 325 ships over the next decade, with new ships put into service before some older vessels are retired, and finally settling at 313 between 2015 and 2020.

The Navy will never get back to its former strength, thanks to the wholesale destruction of entire fleets of ships as part of the “peace dividend” that we took, primarily in the 1990s. Most of those ships had remained in service too long, but the Navy never got enough money to sufficiently replace them before the fall of the Berlin Wall and collapse of the Soviet Union. Instead, many had gone through extensive refits, making their retirement a rather easy decision at the time.
Now that we have all discovered that history did not end in 1990 and that existential threats not only remained since then but thrived on our ignorance, the time has long since passed to bolster the Navy to ensure the security of both coasts. In a decade, the Chinese fleet may surpass our Pacific fleet in firepower, a dangerous imbalance not only for us but for our Pacific Rim allies such as Japan and South Korea. That shift in power will signal not just Beijing but other regimes and terrorist bands that the US has lost its primacy on the seas — and that will exponentially expand our problems.
Interestingly, one of the major proponents of expanding the Navy’s inventory is Susan Collins of Maine. Her support comes from more practical considerations, however; shipbuilders make up a large part of her constituency. The sometimes-Republican Senator wants George Bush to push Congress to increase the budget necessary to start putting her voters to work. I’d tend to agree with her in this instance, but the White House will surely feel a strong impulse to take advantage of the situation to get Collins on board in support of other Republican initiatives before committing to her pet project. That’s how power politics get played in DC, after all.
The White House should resist that urge in this case. The Navy needs to start now on its rebuilding effort if we hope to maintain our power gap, especially in the Pacific. Playing politics with this particular issue of national security will make the GOP look less than serious about defense and erode our credibility on these topics, just when we may have repositioned the party for its 2006 run.