Carrier numbers have declined from dozens to (currently active). All indications are that the numbers will continue to decline as budget pressures continue to mount. The Navy has already announced that only two carriers at a time will be deployed starting in 2015 – that’s two carriers to cover the entire world. At the same time, the number of aircraft in airwings has decreased significantly. The Navy has stated that squadron size will be reduced by a further 2-4 aircraft when the F-35 reaches service. It doesn’t take a fortune teller to see that even that may be an optimistic prediction given the runaway cost of the JSF program. The net result is that the likelihood of naval aviation being present at any point in the world and at any given time is steadily decreasing and this situation will only get worse for the foreseeable future.
The Air Force is not immune to this trend, either. Overall aircraft numbers are shrinking and no one believes that the projected buy of F-35s will occur as planned. The Air Force will be fortunate if they can procure three quarters of that amount.
Further, the number of combat ships in the fleet is steadily declining.
Compounding all of this is a lack of bases in the various areas of interest, particularly the East/South China Seas, meaning
’s “Pacific Pivot”. America
How does all of this tie together? Simple… More and more naval operations will be conducted with less and less support. Small task force operations will be replaced by single ship operations. Ships will be tasked without sufficient support. Aircraft will operate without backup. In other words, independent operations will increase. By independent, I mean individual ships or small task groups that have no readily available external support.
Even when we had sufficient support we too often operated ships and aircraft without proper support. Remember the
incident? Remember the EP-3 forcedown by the Chinese? Just recently, we sent an Aegis cruiser to monitor a Chinese fleet and it was unceremoniously spanked and sent packing by the Chinese. To be fair, I don’t know what support, if any, the cruiser had on call. The point is that independent operations will occur far more frequently as time goes on. Pueblo
How is this relevant? Well, hand-in-hand with independent operations is increased risk. Did the Aegis cruiser have support on call or is part of the reason why it vacated the area due to a lack of support if things had turned ugly? As we deploy P-8s for maritime surveillance will they have proper support or will they be on their own? As we continue to send T-AGOS ships on patrol do they have sufficient support to bail them out of a jam?
Where once an enemy might have hesitated to instigate an incident due to the presence of nearby support, the current circumstances may be just the encouragement an enemy needs to pick off an LCS (they’re welcome to it!) or force down a brand new P-8.
is clearly spoiling for a confrontation and the lack of support reinforces their aggressiveness. China
So, what can we do about this? Well, we could build more planes and ships but that isn’t going to happen. We could forward deploy more assets to increase the level of available support but we’re actually doing the opposite. Carriers and airwings are being idled to save money and some deployments are being skipped. Honestly, there’s not really anything we can do about this in the near term.
Of course, we can always reduce our posture and pull back. Sadly, this is being seriously discussed (two-hub Navy, surge Navy, and similar proposals).
Where does all this leave us? Well, if we want to continue to maintain an effective forward presence we have to recognize and admit that we’re going to be operating with insufficient support on a frequent basis. Ships and groups are going to find themselves in critical situations with only their own resources to call on. That being the case, we need to rethink our ship designs.
We need to begin designing ships that are more capable, more defensible, more survivable, and more combat ready. In other words, we need ships that are capable of independent operations.
Ponder this need and we’ll follow up with a post that has a more detailed discussion of the specific type of ship needed for independent operations.