NavWeek: Ships Ahoy

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For all of the wringing of hands and gnashing of teeth over the impacts of sequestration and continuing resolutions, it is interesting to point out that the Navy shipbuilding plan, especially for the immediate future, remains pretty intact.

Indeed, it’s even more interesting to note the growth of the U.S. Navy shipbuilding efforts since the latter part of the last decade.

“In 2008 the Navy placed three ships under contract,” Secretary Ray Mabus told folks earlier this month during the Navy League’s Sea Air Space symposium. “Since December 2010 we have contracted for 47 ships. The budget and the plan we are submitting to Congress brings the fleet to 300 ships before the end of this decade. Now this is a critical turn around, especially since our defense strategy is now maritime and it is centered on the Western Pacific, the Arabian Gulf, and building partnerships.”

How much of a turnaround? “On September 11, 2001, the U.S. Navy had 316 ships.  We had 377,000 sailors,” Mabus says. “By 2008, after one of the great military buildups in American history, we had fallen to 278 ships and 49,000 fewer sailors.”

The ground wars had obviously taken their toll on the Navy fleet and personnel. With the withdrawal, there was a shift back toward Navy matters – Washington has always been considered a bit of Navy town.

Now, with the Pacific pivot, the turnaround is taking the Navy full circle – and then some. “We are executing a plan that has arrested the declining number of ships and soon the fleet will begin to grow with more, more capable ships,” Mabus says.

While it doesn’t exactly have carte blanche, it does appear that the Navy is getting more leeway on its ship and related investments than its sister services as the nation redirects its attention to the Pacific.

Part of that, no doubt, is the growing importance – or the acknowledgement of importance – for certain Navy-related missions, such as maritime mobile ballistic missile defense, stealthy submarine missions or even cozying up to the coasts with new vessels like the Littoral Combat Ship (LCS).

That’s not to say the Navy expects clearing sailing ahead. To afford its long-term shipbuilding plan, the service still has to find creative ways to save and spend money.

“When we find changes that need to be made we have to go beyond tweaking or chipping away at the margins of existing structures,” Mabus says. “Pruning the edges is just not enough. We have to be willing to fashion entirely new ways of doing things.”

For a time, it will be tough to accomplish its missions with the assets it has in hand – or at sea.

“Facing today’s issues is going to require us to balance our resources against our responsibilities,” Mabus says.  “We’re going to have to make some hard decisions and be strategic in our thinking and planning.”

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