In recent years, in response to budget constraints, there has been discussion of homeporting major elements of the Navy and simply surging them, if needed. The claimed benefits include reduced physical wear on the ships since they would remain docked most of the time, reduced manpower requirements since the ships would need nothing more than a caretaker crew, and reduced operating costs due to the reduced crew and curtailed deployments.
For purposes of this discussion, let’s set aside surge-related issues like forward presence and deterrence and just examine the surge capability, itself. Can a modern navy even surge an idled fleet? Let’s be clear – we’re not talking about surging a ship that’s currently between deployments and is somewhere in the non-deployed maintenance/training cycle. Instead, we’re talking about ships that are long term idled. This is what one line of thinking is regarding fleet size and budget.
Of course, on a practical basis, the Navy is currently partially in this condition. Budget limitations have resulted in carriers sitting pierside for extended periods with somewhat reduced crews. Air wings have been nearly idled with pilots barely flying enough hours to remain flight certified. Aegis cruisers are sitting in a nebulous “modernization” state with their crews having been disbanded.
So, can we surge such a navy?
Let’s look at technology. Aegis, the prime weapon system of the fleet, requires exquisite care by highly trained and experienced technicians. Even so, the Aegis system has become significantly degraded, fleet wide, and the Navy has instituted one of their infamous Admiralty chaired focus groups to try to remedy the problem. Unfortunately, Aegis is so complicated that it requires a degree of expertise to maintain that is simply not widely available in the fleet. In the early years, Aegis was maintained by the very best of the Navy’s technicians and heavily supplemented by contractor support. Over the years, that degree of attention and resources faded resulting in the degraded system of today.
This phenomenon is true, to a greater or lesser degree, with any technology. The personnel to maintain technology cannot be surged. They either already exist for will take a year or more to train new personnel. Whether it’s nuclear engineers, propulsion plant engineers, fire control specialists, radar operators, computer and electronics techs, or culinary specialists, the highly trained personnel needed to effectively operate and maintain technology can’t be surged out of thin air.
Let’s look at tactics. ASW is more of an art than a science. Knowing how an enemy sub commander thinks is just as important, or more so, than having a new sonar. The art of ASW is a highly perishable skill that requires constant practice to maintain proficiency. Disbanded or skeleton crews and idle ships don’t practice. Carrier group tactics, especially the multi-carrier groups that we’ll actually fight a war with, are not being practiced now and would be neglected even more with a homeported, idled fleet. You can’t surge tactical prowess. Tactics are something that have to be constantly developed, refined, and practiced.
Let’s look at modernization. Ships that are sitting idle and not anticipated to be used (they never are prior to being needed!) are far less likely to be kept modernized, especially in an era of severely constrained budgets. Surging ships whose equipment is out of date and whose physical condition is substandard is not a recipe for success.
Let’s look at manpower. Ships whose crews have been disbanded or are maintained by a skeleton caretaker crew are lacking the most important feature – a highly trained crew intimately familiar with the ship and its equipment. Crews, especially in today’s technology-heavy Navy, can’t be thrown together on a moment’s notice and be combat effective.
Let’s look at aviation. Even today we see non-deployed air wings whose monthly flying has dropped to the bare minimum necessary to remain flight certified. Little or no tactical training is occurring. Some reports have put the flight hours at as little as four hours per month. In addition to the pilot’s proficiency, the maintainers must be proficient. Again, that takes constant work on real aircraft. It’s just not possible to surge idled aviation. Bringing an individual pilot, mechanic, or air wing up to combat readiness takes months. You can’t surge aviation.
Now, all of this discussion assumes a homeported fleet that exists in an idled state. There is an alternative that could provide a constantly surge-ready fleet.
Rather than homeport and idle the fleet, it could be homeported but maintained with full maintenance and full crews. The fleet would have the opportunity to conduct thorough maintenance and training without the “distraction” of actual deployments. The ships would put to sea to conduct tactical training as needed and then immediately return for maintenance. This would greatly reduce the wear and tear on ships and crews while maintaining the highest level of readiness. As we’ve seen, though, given the opportunity to do exactly this, the Navy has opted to let carriers sit idle, Aegis crews have been disbanded, maintenance is being deferred or ignored, and worthwhile tactical training is almost non-existent.
Lest you think I’m advocating for this route, I’m not. There is value in actual deployments. Conducted properly, which the Navy is not, ships and crews on deployment get to experience real world conditions in areas that they might have to fight. They experience the weather, sea conditions, geography, etc. They also get face to face experience sailing and flying against potential enemies.