- The U.S. Navy is struggling to manage the intense requirements imposed on a too-small number of ships manned by discouraged sailors and a lack of foresight from uniformed leaders amid pressure from Congress to expand the fleet, experts told the Daily Caller News Foundation.
- Failure to address these issues would cripple the U.S.’ most valuable tool in exercising power across the globe, experts said.
- “The Navy is straining very badly because the Navy will be the first service and fight and will take major losses in the first weeks” of a conflict in the Taiwan Strait, Lyle Goldstein, director of the Asia Engagement program at Defense Priorities, told the DCNF.
The U.S. Navy is overstretched, and if it doesn’t find a way to hold on to sailors, keep ships in good condition and develop a clear plan forward, America will lose the most powerful tool it has to deter China, experts told the Daily Caller News Foundation.
The Navy’s preparedness for a fight has crumbled in recent years from a series of issues with personnel and capabilities that likely stem from a failure to maintain a fleet of the right size and composition for the job of patrolling the world’s oceans and guarding the homeland, according to experts and watchdog reports. As Congress urges the service to maintain a larger fleet, the Navy is approaching the point where it will have to choose a path: fix its problems or cut down on its objectives, experts said.
“The United States counts on the Navy to advance U.S. influence, respond to crises and deter — and if necessary, defeat — adversary aggression. If the Navy does not swiftly address its deficiencies, one of its most important instruments of national power will become increasingly less relevant,” Timothy Walton, a senior fellow researching warfare and Indo-Pacific security at the Hudson Institute, told the DCNF.
The Navy received a fresh round of criticism in recent weeks for promoting a drag queen as a “digital ambassador,” which was first reported by the DCNF. Republican Sen. Tommy Tuberville of Alabama said the incident showcased uniformed leaders’ obsession with woke priorities in an op-ed for The Wall Street Journal.
“The U.S. Navy is in decline,” Tuberville said.
In some sense, the Navy has it worse than the other services, receiving an “inordinate amount of attention” due to major accidents, ship delays and scandals, Brent Sadler, a senior research fellow on naval warfare for the Heritage Foundation, told the DCNF.
A recent Government Accountability Office report analyzing trends in military readiness found that the Navy’s readiness and mission capability decreased between 2017 and 2021.
The service has consistently failed to rectify long-running challenges in keeping ships at congressionally-mandated conditions and has accumulated a maintenance backlog of $1.8 billion, according to the report. Derelict docks where ships are repaired and sustained are part of the problem; another issue is that the surface fleet is under-manned and sailors are not getting enough sleep.
Most equipment at shipyards, where Navy vessels are docked for repairs and maintenance when not deployed, is past its service life, according to another GAO report from May 2022. While the Navy has scoped out upgrades to dry dock infrastructure, the estimated cost of doing so has inflated by at least $4 billion while detailed plans on shipyard modernization are years delayed.
“Something is very wrong” with how maintenance is being done, Lyle Goldstein, director of the Asia Engagement program at Defense Priorities and former research professor at the U.S. Naval War College, told the DCNF.
Poor shipyard conditions in turn mean the Navy struggles to maintain its surface vessel and submarine fleet, according to the GAO’s findings. And, the Navy is under scrutiny for a string of accidents, including a fire on board the USS Bonhomme Richard in 2020 that led to a loss of the ship and two deadly crashes in 2017 that killed 17 sailors.
Low morale is another problem afflicting ships’ crews, spurring a “staggering” number of desertions and clusters of suicides, CBS News reported.
Seven sailors serving the USS George Washington have died by suicide since it deployed, according to CBS News. In late 2022, at least four sailors assigned to the Mid-Atlantic Regional Maintenance Center, a maintenance depot in Norfolk, Virginia, died within weeks of one another, NBC News reported.
Much of the issue has been attributed to poor living and working conditions, with sailors confined to cramped conditions on ships docked for years at a time.
But whether docked or deployed, ships’ crews are asked to do more than is realistic to expect, Goldstein said.
Growing the fleet could also address some of the personnel issues facing the Navy, Sadler argued, by cutting down on taxing deployment schedules. “Grow the fleet and retention will go up as sailors have more manageable deployment schedules, on better maintained ships able to deploy on time, ” he said.
But, the prospect of building more ships poses another layer of challenges.
Navy Adm. Daryl Caudle, commander of U.S. Fleet Forces Command, blamed the U.S. defense industry — overwhelmed by orders to support U.S. military aid for Ukraine — for the delays in producing and repairing ships, submarines and the weapons they’re meant to deliver.
“It should have been pretty clear” that the Navy’s attempt to build a new class of submarine while cranking out attack submarines at the same time “was going to be very, very difficult,” Goldstein said. “So it doesn’t really surprise me that we’re getting 1.2 submarines a year instead of two” as planned.
Meanwhile, the service released a pared-down 2024 budget proposal that continues the decommissioning process for certain classes of ships considered too maintenance-0intensive or not suited to the Navy’s goals, part of a “divest to invest” strategy, Defense News reported.
“Congress has consistently appropriated funding beyond the Navy’s requests to address deficiencies — especially in the areas of shipbuilding, aviation procurement, and munitions,” Walton said.
Congress could authorize additional funds for fleet expansion, as it has in previous years, but remains concerned about the Navy’s foot-dragging on meeting legislators’ demands for a larger fleet, Breaking Defense reported. Those concerns triggered an unusual hearings Thursday in Congress on naval shipbuilding.
“Given the astronomical amount of U.S. taxpayer funding put towards this effort, that is unacceptable,” Republican Wisconsin Rep. Glenn Grothman, the chairman for the National Security, Border and Foreign Affairs Subcommittee on the House Oversight Committee, told Breaking Defense.
Secretary of the Navy Carlos del Toro appeared to affirm an eventual need for more ships to counter China’s rapidly expanding navy, CNN reported. China’s People’s Liberation Army Navy could put up to 400 ships in operation in coming years, up from the 340 it fields currently, while the U.S. Navy hovers at around 300 ships.
“They have 13 shipyards, in some cases their shipyard has more capacity – one shipyard has more capacity than all of our shipyards combined. That presents a real threat,” Del Toro said, according to CNN.
But, the Navy’s overall trend has been toward a smaller number of large, costly ships, Walton told the DCNF.
That trend has put the service at odds with the Marine Corps, which is pressuring the Navy to fund additional medium-sized amphibious craft.
The Navy’s current shipbuilding plan presents three different pathways, “which means the service has no clear vision for where it wants to go nor how it will get there,” according to Republican Wisconsin Rep. Mike Gallagher.
“U.S. fleet design should be based on U.S. strategic and operational demands; however, the growing size and sophistication of the People’s Liberation Army is driving the growing need for a more robust U.S. Navy,” Walton said.
However, the Navy and Marine Corps together boast the largest budget proposal of all the armed services. Adding more could strain an already bloated U.S. defense budget and may not even tip the balance in favor of the U.S. in the event of a Taiwan Strait conflict, Goldstein argued.
“The Navy is straining very badly because the Navy will be the first service and fight and will take major losses in the first weeks,” Goldstein told the DCNF. “The objectives that have been put before the Navy are just too grand and we should be more realistic.”
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