Beset by failed modernization efforts, a looming series of financial bills and a series of scandals that have thinned its top ranks, the US Navy has seen better days — just as the Pentagon’s pivot to the Pacific thrusts the Navy to the military’s forefront. In this new call to action, John Ferrari of AEI says Congress must quickly create a National Commission on the Navy’s future, find a path forward, and commit to it.
In 1980, US Army Chief of Staff General Edward Meyer famously testified to Congress that the Army had become “hollow,” the result of too much structure and not enough people, along with outdated equipment, low morale, and untrained soldiers. After decades of tireless efforts in Vietnam, the social upheavals of the 1970s, and the decreased buying power of rampant inflation, Meyer’s “hollow” force was not simply descriptive: it was a plea for help to the political leadership of the country.
Chief of Naval Operations Adm. Mike Gilday’s testimony before Congress last month about the 2023 budget and posture of the US Navy should have echoed Meyer’s past sentiments. Instead, Gilday sounded more like Meyer’s predecessor, Gen. Bernard Rogers, whose testimony in 1977 gave little to no indication that a mere two years later the Army leadership would publicly admit the Army was in serious trouble.
Given the string of scathing GAO reports, crashes that now include the nuclear submarine fleet, and large-scale leadership lapses, there are plenty of warning signs that the Navy is on a path to being just as broken as the Army of 1980 — perhaps worse. Gilday’s warning cannot yield the same “wait a few more years” result. While it took the Army nearly five years to recover from its post-Vietnam hollowness, the Navy is a much more difficult challenge that might take more than a decade to fix. But fix it we must.
Why is this important now and why focus on the Navy? Because in the 1970s, the Army became hollow in the context of a Cold War moment where the US was nearly overmatched by Soviet conventional ground forces. Today, America is entering a new Cold War, and the Navy has become America’s pacing force. While the Army and Air Force both have their own readiness and modernization challenges, they are not as complicated or as deep as the issues faced by the Navy, the majority of which required a decade-long time frame to solve and a high-level national commitment.
Simply put, the Navy cannot fix itself. Policymakers simply cannot wait for another 1979-Army-like testimony that resembles the decades-old Life-Alert commercials that made famous the line “Help, I’ve fallen, and I can’t get up!” It is time for the Hill to take action.
So, how is the Navy broken and what should the Congress do about it?
Rarely is there a disaster with just a single cause. Some of those cumulative causes that have led Navy to the precipice of ruin are:
- Combatant Commanders and successive administrations overuse of the Navy that led to huge maintenance backlogs;
- the Navy’s attempts to create mythical efficiencies that failed, thus destroying fleet readiness;
- the Navy’s acceptance of being goaded into “transformational” or “leap ahead” ship building acquisition programs that led to the LCS, Joint Strike Fighter, and carrier acquisition debacles;
- several decades of deferred modernization of the nuclear triad whose bills have to be paid at the expense of other Navy priorities; and
- a constantly shifting resource profile from Congress, specifically the decade long Budget Control Act, which starved the Navy of steady funding it needed to purchase capital assets that take years to build.
As a result of all these factors, the Navy has broken people, broken ships, and broken readiness — and now faces an inflation crisis, once again echoing the Army of the late 1970s.
The Congress has recently chartered several commissions that have solved seemingly intractable problems and, more importantly, built consensus around solutions. Specifically, the national commissions associated with the Air Force and Army, and more recently on defense budgeting reform have proven effective — yet another reason why the Navy needs a prioritized focus over the other two branches of the military. What is needed now is a bipartisan solution that the White House, the Congress, industry, and leads in the Department of Defense — including the Navy and Combatant Commanders — all agree to.
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A proposed National Commission on the Future of the US Navy should be led by a presidentially appointed co-chair and a congressionally appointed co-chair. The commission should be broken into six subgroups: Infrastructure, Sailors, Ships, Planes, COCOM Demand, and Nuclear Weapons.
The commission needs to work quickly and needs to be complete in one year. Why so fast? The Navy is going to spend billions of dollars each year that may or may not be within the solution sets provided by the commission. Just two weeks ago, the Navy announced that it is decommissioning ships that they are funding maintenance repairs for because the plan keeps changing. Wasting hundreds of millions on constantly shifting plans is not a way to fix the fleet.
The commission needs to arrive at a set of solutions that provide a clear path for the Navy for next fifteen years. The solutions should be set at three potential funding levels: FY23 appropriated plus inflation, FY23 appropriated with 3-5% real annual growth, and an unconstrained budget level to see what it would cost to get the Navy the commission believes the United States needs.
What are some of the solutions that the commission should explore?
First, the Commission should explore options to ensure that the Navy has enough sailors to man every ship at 115 percent. The Special Operations Community learned a long time ago that you must overman units in order to have them near 100 percent for deployment. This enables the other 15 percent to recover from medical issues, attend training, and provide a redundancy and overlap induced by the assignment cycle.
Next, the Commission needs to recommend how the Navy can put into place processes to ensure that they take a pause on “betting the farm” on “white sheeting” new ships. Concurrency in acquisition has proven to be a failure, but updates have to happen near-term. As a result, the Commission should look at how it can get non-traditional defense companies into the shipyards before we spend $20 billion rebuilding them like it is the 1980s all over again. In addition, commissioners should explore options for how we innovate with getting non-traditional defense firms onto our existing fleet to integrate modern technology and automation today rather than just on future ships. We simply cannot condemn to technological obsolescence the sailors that currently operate the 280+ ships we have. The commission should outline a plan to build future ships that do not require a label such as “transformational.” Again, non-traditional firms can probably shorten developmental timelines while fielding enhanced capabilities, i.e., the recent partnership forged by the Australian Navy with new-comer Anduril.
Lastly, the commission needs to set a hard limit on the use of our Navy by the Combatant Commanders. The true cost of overusing the fleet is never paid for and it robs the Navy and our nation of future use. Congress has taken increasing interest in global force management (see section 1074 of the FY22 National Defense Authorization Act) for this very reason, but more must be done to arrest peacetime demand than annual classified reports and briefings. To prevent the overuse of the Navy, hard usage limits should be enshrined in legislation, with applicable waivers that the president can use in case of emergencies.
Every day, our Navy is sinking deeper into hollowness. The first step to a solution is to admit one has a problem. The next step is to ask for help. The Navy’s problems are now so complex and interdependent that they are probably beyond the service’s capability by itself to solve. Fixing the Army after the 1970’s was a national effort that resulted in high procurement spending to get modern equipment immediately into the hands of soldiers; a decade of sustained high levels of funding to make up the for the lost buying power of the 1970s; improved pay, training, and personnel policies for the enlisted force; and a focus on collective combat training above all else.
The Navy needs a similar uplift. We are getting close to the tipping point where the only option is to go into full triage mode for the service, and the Congress needs to lead us in this urgent recovery. Only a National Commission can forge the consensus we need and put in place a fifteen-year plan to get the Navy healthy again.
Maj. Gen. John Ferrari, US Army (ret.), is a visiting fellow at the American Enterprise Institute (AEI) and is the former director of program analysis and evaluation for the US Army.