Ray Mabus, National Defense Magazine
What should Americans conclude when they hear conflicting claims about the U.S. Navy being too large or shrinking too much? History and the facts prove both claims wrong, and the argument is misleading. The size of our fleet matters because we live in a maritime-centric world. And what’s just as important as numbers of ships is what those numbers mean today.
So here are some numbers to consider: about 70 percent of our planet is covered by water; 80 percent of Earth’s population lives within an hour’s drive to the sea; 90 percent of global trade is seaborne; and 95 percent of voice and data are carried via undersea cables.
Since the end of World War II, the Navy’s presence has kept international sea lanes open around the world. For the first time in human history, we’ve protected trade and commerce not just for ourselves and our allies, but for everyone. Today, $9 trillion in goods are traded globally by sea, supporting 40 million jobs in the U.S. alone and benefiting nearly every consumer on Earth.
In every response from high-end combat to disaster relief, our naval assets arrive there faster and stay longer. We bring whatever we need with us and we act without having to ask anyone’s permission because our ships are sovereign U.S. territory. The Navy demonstrated this capability when the only strikes for the first 54 days of the air campaign against Islamic State militants in Iraq and Syria came from Navy F/A-18 Hornets off the USS George H.W. Bush in the Arabian Gulf. Land-based fighters could not participate until host nations approved.
That is presence, the unrivaled advantage that the Navy and Marine Corps team uniquely provide our nation. People and platforms can be surged, but you cannot surge trust and there is no way to build trust other than being there. Maintaining that presence requires gray hulls on the horizon.
On Sept. 11, 2001, our fleet stood at 316 ships. Less than eight years later, despite one of the great military build-ups in American history, the fleet had declined to 278 ships. After I took office in 2009, it became clear our shipbuilding program had been neglected.
In the five years before 2009, the Navy put just 27 ships under contract, not nearly enough to keep our fleet from shrinking, and not enough to keep our shipyards going. In my first five years in office, we put 70 ships under contract, more than the last three Navy secretaries combined.
We’ve done this, while challenged by constrained budgets and fiscal uncertainty, with business fundamentals: increasing reliance on fixed-price contracts, block buys and multi-year procurements; having stable designs and mature technologies; and hard, but fair, bargaining.
The Navy awarded its largest ever contract by dollar value, an $18 billion, multi-year contract for 10 Virginia-class submarines, saving more than $2 billion, effectively giving the Navy 10 subs for the price of nine.
With our DDG-51 destroyers, instead of bidding out two ships, we bid three. Each of the two shipyards received one ship and the low bidder the third. The difference between the low and high bids also was taken out of the high bid’s profit, which saves us $300 million per ship.
With the Littoral Combat Ship, a large, fast, shallow draft, modular ship, the first four, LCS 1-4, were contracted before 2009 at an average ship construction cost of $548 million. We now have 19 authorized and appropriated under the fiscal years 2010-2015 block buy contract at an average ship construction cost of $337 million thanks to competition and facility improvements at both shipyards.
These business practices help build our fleet while saving taxpayer dollars. And the work increases and stabilizes America’s shipbuilding and repair industry, which provides more than 400,000 direct and indirect jobs and contributes more than $36 billion to America’s gross domestic product.
And today we’re getting more out of our ships. All of our ships are multi-mission platforms, ready to meet anything that comes over the horizon. On any given day, we have about 100 ships forward deployed. This is the same number we had forward deployed 20 years ago, when the fleet had 400 ships instead of the approximately 300 we have currently. Regardless, today we have more firepower, more capability and more capacity to do whatever is necessary on the world’s oceans than we did 20 or 40 or 100 years ago.
Certain things are beyond debate. First, we are the only nation willing and able to ensure freedom of the seas. Second, in order to protect sea lanes, reassure allies and deter potential foes, we must have a fleet big and capable enough to do so. Third, after years of decline, our fleet is growing and will reach the required size in less than five years. Fourth, ships take a long time to build and sail the seas for decades; the fleet size we have today is the result of decisions made 10 or more years ago. Lastly, shipbuilding is a unique skill that is hard to acquire and, if lost, is very hard to recover.
Assertions that our fleet is declining in size or comparing today’s fleet size to what it was at some point in history fundamentally discounts the fact that ships today can do far more than those of any other age. And while such statements may advance political or personal agendas and grab headlines, they demonstrate a critical misconception we cannot afford and do a disservice to our sailors, Marines, shipbuilders, industry and, most importantly, to America.
Statements like these embolden our potential adversaries, undermine the confidence of our allies and are
completely wrong. The U.S. Navy and Marines are the most formidable expeditionary fighting force the world has ever known, providing our nation with invaluable presence around the world. By continuing to increase the size and capability of our fleet, we will ensure it remains so.
Ray Mabus is the 75th secretary of the Navy.