By Kevin Baron
After two large ground wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, the military is rethinking its scale and purpose.
But the Navy hasn't skipped a beat. With the pivot to Asia and the Pacific, increasing tensions in the Gulf and new threats in Europe, including the Black Sea, the Navy's mission has changed but hasn't slowed down.
With about 100 ships at sea, the Navy is as busy as it's ever been. And they're looking to rekindle their special relationship with the Marines and bring amphibious operations back to the forefront. "They're doing everything from conducting strikes in Iraq and Syria, to combatting Ebola in Africa, to exercising with our partners and friends to ensure freedom of navigation in the Pacific," Navy Secretary Ray Mabus said recently.
"As we have drawn down from two land wars our sister services talk about their "re-set' and their troops coming home. Well there are no permanent homecomings for Sailors and Marines. For 239 years they have deployed continually to keep America's adversaries far from our own shores. They deploy not only to fight and win our nation's wars, but to deter our potential enemies and prevent wars from happening," Mabus told the Surface Navy Association earlier this month.
Mabus pointed out that once the decision was made to conduct air strikes against the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, the USS George H. W. Bush was there in 30 hours.
The Navy is also working on mobile landing platforms, such as the Afloat Forward Staging Base, as a transfer point between larger ships and small landing crafts.
And cyber is demanding more attention. The Navy is working on the CANES program, the Consolidated Afloat Networks and Enterprise Services, which will equip every ship in the fleet with a standards-based network.
Advanced networking systems will prove ever more vital in the coming years. The future of combat will require ever more drones, including networked small boats working together autonomously like the Office of Naval Research demonstrated last year. Even traditional naval aviation flying of off aircraft carriers is facing a different future with prototype drones like the X-47B looking to displace manned aircraft.
The increasingly globalization of terrorism, as seen by the attacks in France and other threats across Europe, and the recent aggression of Russia, means that the Navy is in more demand than ever. But there are challenges not only abroad, but at home. Budget cuts still threaten the Pentagon, with another round of sequestration on the table.
"Looking ahead to 2015, the state of the U.S. Navy concerns me," Rep. Randy Forbes, R-Va., told Defense One. "Although the American Navy remains the finest naval service in the world, six years of reckless budget cuts have shrunk our fleet to one of its smallest sizes since the First World War."
Much of the Navy's resources are tied down with controversial programs like the Littoral Combat Ship, the Zumwalt class destroyer, and the F-35 fighter. The LCS is over budget and widely seen as under-gunned, the Zumwalt is so expensive that procurement is held to a mere three ships, and the F-35, despite being the most expensive weapons program in history, has become a running joke.
"At present, the service faces alarming shortfalls in critical classes of ships and in the funding required to fulfill its existing shipbuilding and modernization plans. Meanwhile, sustained demand for the capabilities our Navy provides have forced the service to adopt questionable ship-counting rules, and force its remaining ships into ever longer deployments, placing additional strain on our hardware and -- importantly -- on our sailors and their families," Forbes said. "As is their tradition, the dedicated men and women of the Navy are making do, but I am alarmed by the potential damage these trends could do if they are allowed to go unchecked."
The Navy is looking to be leaner and meaner, and not just because of budget cuts. The fleet is strong, even though the wars have officially ended and budget cuts remain the status quo, Mabus said. "In 2014, we launched nine new ships and by the end of the decade our plan will return the fleet to over 300 ships."
"And we haven't done this at the cost of naval aviation. During my time in office we have bought 1,300 aircraft. That is 40 percent more than the Navy and Marine Corps contracted in the five years before this administration took office," he said. "I know some people are claiming it, but our fleet is not in decline."
Still, there is plenty to worry about.
"The situation the Navy faces today reflects the polar tensions of the major actors within DOD," Ret. Vice Adm. Peter Daly, CEO of the U.S. Naval Institute, told Defense One. "The combatant commanders "demand' assets and the military services "supply.' The combatant commanders have a regional focus, relatively short horizon, and are fiscally unconstrained for force demand. The Chief of Naval Operations and other service chiefs have a global focus, longer horizon and are fiscally constrained for force supply. When demand exceeds supply, all roads lead to the Secretary of Defense who makes the final decisions. It is he as the civilian leader who signs the important deployment orders. You get where we are today when, year on year, SECDEFs say "yes' to force demand, without prioritizing and providing the resources for the high demand forces."
"When supply exceeds demand, SECDEF should either say "no" to the extra/extended deployments or shift resources to increase supply. Otherwise, you overuse high demand platforms and overuse the people who man and sustain them," Daly said.
The size, the readiness, the psyche and the morale of the ground force is a joint issue we all ought to be concerned with.
This is a time of transformation for the Navy and the Chief of Naval Operations Adm. Jonathan Greenert will be replaced. Greenert, speaking at the Brookings Institute last fall, said the Navy is working with all of the services to combat the threats and needs of the future.
"The size, the readiness, the psyche and the morale of the ground force is a joint issue we all ought to be concerned with as we do this. We've got to do it very carefully," he said.