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In the winter of 2017, AEI conducted four tabletop exercises to evaluate naval requirements for meeting a range of possible crises. The exercises were designed to stimulate discussion about the size of the US Navy, its basing, its equipment, and the fleet’s readiness plans. The exercises brought together more than two dozen former Navy, Department of Defense, and national security officials.
The scenarios used in the exercises take place in 2022. To ensure the report’s credibility, the scenarios were consonant with the existing geopolitical environment. The Middle East would still be an arena of conflict, the war in Afghanistan would be ongoing, and relations with Iran and North Korea would remain strained. Relations with Russia and China, given existing trends, would grow increasingly competitive. In addition, the scenarios assume that the Navy’s three major operational activities—peacetime engagement, crisis response, and wartime combat—would not change.
The tabletop exercises were conducted early in the Trump administration’s first year. At the time, there was considerable uncertainty about what the administration’s longer-term global strategy would be and, as such, what the role of the Navy might be going forward. But, as exemplified by events since then, it has been “steady as it goes” for the Navy.
In April 2017, for example, the administration faced simultaneous crises in Syria and North Korea. In Syria, the military forces of President Bashar al-Assad used chemical weapons against Syrian civilians in contravention of international law and agreements, while in North Korea the Kim regime test-fired a ballistic missile into the Sea of Japan.
In the Pacific area of operations the administration responded by diverting the USS Carl Vinson carrier strike group (CSG), then in Southeast Asia, to the waters of Northeast Asia to fill the gap caused by the scheduled maintenance of the USS Ronald Reagan, another carrier. Subsequently, the administration decided to extend the Vinson’s deployment to maintain a carrier presence in that region.
Meanwhile, in the Middle East, the administration responded to Assad’s use of chemical weapons by launching 60 land-attack cruise missiles from Navy ships already deployed in the Mediterranean Sea. The ships were on station in the Mediterranean as part of a forward-deployed missile defense force. Participation in the Syrian strike required taking them off of their planned missile defense duty.
Likewise, in November 2017, the Navy responded to rising tensions with North Korea by simultaneously deploying three aircraft carriers—the Reagan, the USS Nimitz, and the USS Theodore Roosevelt—with air wings and strike groups to the Pacific theater. While a strong show of force, it is worth noting that the Nimitz was passing through the Pacific on its way back to its home port after a deployment to the Persian Gulf, while the Roosevelt was coming from San Diego, passing through the Pacific on its way to replace the Nimitz. In short, although it was a demonstration of how the Navy could construct a powerful strike force in theater, these forces were available only temporarily, and keeping them on station for an extended period would have substantially altered available and ready forces in the months ahead.
Combined with the recently released National Security Strategy (December 2017) and the National Defense Strategy (January 2018), the Trump administration’s conduct in reacting to these events suggests that the administration will continue to use the Navy as previous White Houses and Pentagons have.1 Although this strategic continuity is welcome, a spate of recent accidents indicates the extent of the stress that the pace of current operations has placed on the fleet. Indeed, renewed calls in Congress and the Pentagon for a more ambitious shipbuilding program reflect a consensus that the current configuration of the Navy is insufficient to meet the peacetime demands of national security, let alone those of a major contingency. But expanding the fleet primarily through the acquisition of new ships will take time: The Congressional Budget Office estimates that the earliest the Navy could achieve all elements of a 355-ship fleet is 2035,2 while the Navy’s current shipbuilding plans call for growth in the fleet that will plateau at 342 ships in 2039.3 In the meantime, a novel approach is needed to bridge the gap between today’s Navy and the Navy of the future.
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