NOT since 1949, when the United States Navy made aircraft
carriers and submarines the mainstay of the fleet, has the Senior
Service faced as daunting a decision as it currently does.
In the next two years, the Navy must set the mix of ships it
will sail on the world's oceans well into the next century. By the
Navy's own reckoning, the US fleet will drop from its 1980s high of
565 ships to 450 by 1995.
Even if present shipbuilding plans proceed, experts say the Navy
will shrink to between 410 and 425 ships by the end of the decade.
A recent Congressional Budget Office (CBO) study puts the reduction
as low as possibly 310 by the year 2010.
"In the short term, the Navy will have to do more with less,"
says Ronald O'Rourke, a naval affairs analyst with the
Congressional Research Service.
The failed coup in the Soviet Union as well as President Bush's
most recent statement on nuclear arms reductions "established a new
defense spending climate," he says. Fleet levels in the Navy's 1995
plan are "unsustainable, mere way points on the way down,"
according to Mr. O'Rourke.
Fleet structure is necessarily a long-term concern, says Anthony
Cordesman, national security adviser to Sen. John McCain (R) of
Arizona. The Navy mortgaged about 25 percent of its shipbuilding
budget through the end of this decade when it decided to buy a new
class of attack submarines, called Sea Wolf, O'Rourke says. Each
sub costs $2 billion-plus.
But by the end of the decade there will be a much greater need
for amphibious assault ships to support expeditionary forces than
attack subs, says Mr. Cordesman.
The current inventory of assault ships is nearing obsolescence.
In addition, the Navy has to make a clear decision on whether to
buy a new $4.5 billion Nimitz-class nuclear carrier by next year,
"Before you build a fleet you must know the mission," says James
Tritten, an associate professor at the Naval Post Graduate School
in Monterey, Calif.
Today's Navy, he says, has 2-1/2 fundamental missions. It must
still provide deterrence by projecting a global presence, and it
must be prepared to fight in a wide mix of coastal environments, as
it recently did in the Gulf war. It also must keep an eye on the
"Even though the Navy won't have to be ready, as in the '80s, to
fight fleet-on-fleet battles with the Soviets on a day's notice,
the Navy hasn't been quick enough to sort this out" in its fleet
planning, says Jay Kosminsky, deputy director for defense policy at
the Heritage Foundation, a Washington think-tank. …