By: Mackenzie Eaglen and Bryan McGrath

Real Clear Defense

Listening to the Secretary of the Navy testify before Congress this week, one might be lulled into thinking all is well with U.S. Navy shipbuilding. But the president’s budget for 2014 shrinks and diminishes the Navy’s fleet. Again. Last year’s budget accelerated these same trends while permanently downsizing the Navy’s long-standing fleet goal from 313 to 298 ships.Navy shipyards

In taking credit for his tenure, Mr. Mabus was quick to tell Congress that the Obama Administration has placed 43 ships under contract. While this is surely an improvement over recent years, it is artificially inflated because it counts the deal cut with Littoral Combat Ship (LCS) producers to fix the price of 20 ships vice actually acquiring them, which it does not. The Navy continues to purchase these ships in tranches on an annual basis, as opposed to the multi-year procurements of attack submarines and major surface combatants.

The bottom line remains the same: the Navy is retiring more ships than it plans to build in the President’s 2014 budget request. Over the next five years, the Navy hopes to build 41 ships — that is if sequestration is repealed or replaced — but will retire 42 during the same period.

Whereas two years ago the administration planned to build 57 ships over five years, last year’s plan shrank to 41 new ships. This year’s five-year plan treads water at 41 new construction ships again.

But the Navy’s shipbuilding plan is overly optimistic because it ignores sequestration and current law. Were the Pentagon to implement sequestration, it would surely accelerate ship retirements and slow shipbuilding further. The Navy also incorrectly assumes it will receive more money than planned regardless due to rosy budget assumptions based on unrealistic lifecycle estimates for the surface fleet. Further stretching the bounds of credulity, the last year of the budget submission (FY 2018) features the largest number of ships to be constructed in the period with no ship retirements.

Not only is the fleet shrinking and aging, but it is also changing its composition by trading powerful combat ships before the end of their service lives for larger numbers of smaller and less capable ships. The latest interim plan will cause aggregate combat power to decline along with numbers, leaving the fleet less capable of dealing with open ocean submarine threats, enemy surface fleets, and the majority of threat aircraft and missiles. Additionally, the Navy continues to under-resource its amphibious ships, meeting neither the Marine Corps’ combat requirement of 38 ships nor the worldwide combatant commanders’ requirement for a similar number.

With the drawdown of the war in Iraq complete and Afghanistan nearing completion and the Administration’s rhetoric (at least) calling for a greater emphasis on Asia, it is no secret that American sea power will be called upon to shoulder additional responsibilities for protecting and sustaining America’s global interests. Some point to the power of precision weapons and networking as signs that numbers of ships matter less in the modern world. There is no doubt that when the shooting starts that these capabilities are of great value. However, in the day-to-day business of deterrence and assurance, numbers matter more. Numbers make up the majority of what the Navy’s 2007 Maritime Strategy calls ‘credible combat power.’ A Navy in decline in peacetime is less ready to fight and is potentially more likely to be required to.