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Hagel’s Navy

12:21 PM, Aug 26, 2013 • By SETH CROPSEY
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The consequences flow outwards from the initial step.  The Navy would save money but it would also lose many thousands of skilled sailors.  The industrial base on which any technologically advanced naval force rests would contract as the number of ships that need to be maintained fell.  The handful of remaining large defense prime contractors that build ships would probably survive intact, but many of their secondary and tertiary contractors would likely fold.  Should their products be needed again, years must pass before abandoned manufacturing capability could be restored, or else we must depend on foreign suppliers whose lines of communication to the U.S. would become increasingly brittle as American seapower evaporates.  The Navy’s goal of a 306 ship-fleet, recently reduced from its previous 313-ship target, is already a chimera with a $4 billion dollar gap between what the Navy has historically received for new ship construction and what naval leaders say is needed to reach its goal over the next three decades.  The measures that Secretary Hagel suggests point to a fleet composed of fewer than 260 ships within seven years. 

And reconstituting deactivated carriers is no small matter.  Nuclear reactors cannot be turned on and off like the light in your kitchen.  If they are turned off altogether changes in the core’s composition will require building anew.  It takes four years to refuel a carrier under normal circumstances.  No U.S. aircraft carrier’s reactor has ever been turned off, allowed to sit, and then reactivated.  Even if the reactors of carriers that are withdrawn from the fleet are kept at a simmer, it would take years to bring them back to useful service life, hire and train crews.  And then there is the issue of restoring to preparedness the planes from the deactivated carriers.  Recruiting and training new pilots, ensuring their skills at sea in all weather conditions, and honing their combat abilities would take a couple of years.  Updating support for combat aircraft’s complex electronics systems—everything from navigation to targeting, and more—as well as ammunition readiness and the helicopter support that carriers take to sea would also take time.

American seapower’s swiftness in responding to crises or projecting power on demand as it did throughout the Cold War, in the Balkans, in the Gulf wars, and Haiti in 1994 would become a memory or a Hobson’s choice between weak response and vacating, however temporarily, such strategic commitments as we maintain in the Pacific of the Persian Gulf.

This is a particularly inopportune moment for the U.S. to dismantle seapower, the most globally distributed and strategically influential element of its military.  Civil war continues in Syria and threatens in Egypt.  Turkey under Islamist rule is reviving the both the ideological and geographic ambitions of its Ottoman past.  Fueled in part by the prospect of discovering additional large natural gas deposits in the Eastern Mediterranean, Turkish naval violations of Greek sovereignty have increased four-fold since 2009.  The sub-Saharan arc of Africa has become a nest of insurgencies. Iran approaches nuclear power status.  And East Asia peers into the dawn of a naval armament competition as Australia, India, China, and now South Korea plan, build, launch and commission large new combatants.  

For now the sequester that decreases American power by gutting its armed forces appears immovable.  But events could change this, especially if voters sense danger in America’s inability to influence events or if they realize that half the sequestered funds are being diverted from a department that is responsible for no more than one-fifth of federal spending.  Sensible policy would allow the Defense Department to divide its budget strategically—as Paul Ryan has proposed.  Rather than the administration’s plan which requires cuts to be applied equally, the Ryan legislation would permit cuts to be apportioned so that, for instance, aircraft carriers—which take much longer to build or return to service than tanks or mobile artillery—could be kept on the list of active duty ships.

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