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A Day Without U.S. Seapower

It’s June 2025. Do you know where your fleet is?

Jun 6, 2011, Vol. 16, No. 36 • By BRYAN MCGRATH and MACKENZIE EAGLEN
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There is one remaining private shipyard suitable for building both conventional and nuclear combatants. Specialized shipbuilding trades are in fatal decline. The ship repair business has disappeared, and all depot-level maintenance is conducted in two heavily subsidized public shipyards .  .  . 

Back to 2011: How might we arrive at this same abysmal state of naval readiness absent a crippling world financial crisis? By continuing down the path that we are on now. Changes in world naval power tend to play out over decades, and by the time action is taken to arrest decline, it could easily be too late. Some steps that might be taken to preclude this fate include: 

Recapturing innovation and a sound industrial base. Congress can still prevent the loss of innovation in defense-related research and development. Members should already be alarmed that the U.S. military has no manned aircraft under development, a first in the history of aviation. Similarly, no surface ships or attack submarines are in the design phase. With development cycles lasting 20 years or longer, elected leaders need to ensure the Defense Department is not losing access to critical skills that will be needed to imagine and build the next generation of ships, aircraft, sensors, and weapons for the U.S. Navy.

Developing a long-term research and development plan. After numerous studies and a half-dozen shipbuilding plans, Navy leaders have correctly concluded that the United States needs a larger fleet—not simply in numbers of ships and aircraft, but also in terms of increased network capability, longer range, and increased persistence. Navy leaders recognize that the United States is quickly losing its monopolies on guided weapons and the ability to project power. Precision munitions (guided rockets, artillery, mortars, and missiles) and battle networks are proliferating, while advances in radar and electro-optical technology are increasingly rendering stealth capabilities less effective. Congress should demand long-range technology road maps, including a science and technology plan and a research and development plan for the U.S. Navy. These plans should broadly outline future investments, capabilities, and requirements.

Getting the fleet size right. Congress should direct the Navy to provide a “resource unconstrained” fleet composition appropriate to meeting the requirements of A Cooperative Strategy for 21st Century Seapower, the Navy’s 2007 maritime strategy. The study should include an analysis of the capabilities and missions called for in the strategy and identify which are at risk, given current and planned fleet size and resources. This study should include options for additional forward stationing of U.S. Navy vessels and proposals for new classes of ships designed specifically for low-end naval presence missions.

Without this type of strategy-driven analysis by Navy leaders, Congress will continue to struggle to determine where to apply diminishing resources within the defense budget and how to justify the additional investments needed in higher-priority areas.

America is a maritime nation, and our Navy is the most visible and effective symbol of our national power and strength overseas. Washington decision-makers should recognize the impact and influence of forces that are as useful in peacetime in deterring conflict as they are in wartime while pursuing it. And they need to recognize it before it’s too late.

Mackenzie Eaglen is a research fellow for national security at the Heritage Foundation. Bryan McGrath is a retired naval officer and the director of Delex Consulting, Studies and Analysis in Herndon, Virginia. This article is adapted from a longer study released recently by the Heritage Foundation.

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