Published: April 3, 2023

Topic:  The Weakening U.S. Maritime Posture

Issue: The U.S. is a maritime nation that depends on freedom of the seas for economic prosperity and security.  However, over the past 20 years, our budgetary choices and management decisions have disconnected our naval forces from the strategic policy choices of the U.S.  These vulnerabilities can be rectified only by revised Executive branch policy choices and Congressional funding and oversight.


The need to control our maritime environment has been sine qua non with security and prosperity for the U.S. since our independence.  While the need has been constant, the means required to achieve it has been evolving constantly.  When the fleet was wooden sailing ships, it had to maneuver as one group in order to concentrate their fire power.  The advent of steel hulls, steam propulsion, and radio communications allowed the fleet to disperse widely, then converge on order and concentrate their firepower.  Now, very long-range weapons and world-wide communications allow the fleet to remain dispersed, yet still mass firepower at the critical point.

Weapons have changed, too.  Pre-1941, the dominant weapon was big-gun projectiles.  From 1940 to the 1980’s, the main effort was the aerial bomb.  For the past 30 years, the fleet’s main striking power has been the long-range missile, supplemented by precision-guided aerial bombs.  Similarly, advanced technology has greatly enhanced the capabilities of our naval forces.  However, these radically new and different technologies also radically altered the materials, processes, and infrastructure required to construct, maintain, and employ our ships, aircraft, weapons and equipment.

The Navy needs a clear strategic vision from policy makers in order to design the force required to accomplish it, and them it needs the resources to fulfil that plan.  For the past two decades, the U.S. has been slow to adapt its maritime strategy to our changing security environment and, in many cases, has been unwilling to commit the resources needed for proper force design.  That disparity has been exacerbated by unpredictable Congressional funding, poor internal U.S. Navy management, and changes in technology.  That dichotomy between our strategic goals and our naval force design has weakened the ability of the U.S. naval forces to project influence in peacetime and reduces the likelihood that the U.S. will prevail in a future conflict.

History has stark examples of countries that have had to face similar conundrums.  For example, the U.S. faced these resource and doctrinal crises in the 1930’s.  Its willingness to think its way out of apparently intractable problems in those resource-starved years was the basis for U.S. success in WWII.  Japan followed the same intellectual path as the U.S.; the UK did not.

As a sign that force structure has gotten out of sync with strategic needs, the number of U.S. Navy ships has fallen by half in the past 50 years.  However, the demand for them from Combatant Commanders has been high and continues to rise.  This has greatly increased the operational tempo (optempo) of the remaining ships, which accelerates expenditure of the useful life of equipment, causes more equipment to break, and increases maintenance down time.

This high optempo also places a heavy burden on the reduced number of officers and enlisted personnel surging to support it.  Reductions in personnel resources since 2000 caused the U.S. Navy to cut ships’ crew complements, which reduced the crews’ ability to maintain their ships while underway.  The promise was that the shore establishment would pick up the extra maintenance.  Then, to economize even more, the Navy cut the shore maintenance establishment.  In 1970, a new surface warfare officer took a 4-mounth basic course, followed by a number of one-week specialty courses tailored to the ship to which they were assigned.  By 2010, that 6 months of training had been cut to a series of laser discs issued to a new officer, that they were expected to be completed once on board their new ship.  These decisions collectively led to the over-worked, poorly maintained and undermanned ships with inadequately qualified officers.  The predictable result was the ship collisions, deaths of sailors, severe damage to ships, and multiple commanders being relieved of duty that we are seeing today.

Congressional oversight is crucial to the success of the U.S. military.  However, few current Members of Congress have military experience or depth on naval issues.  In 1975, circa 75% of the members of Congress were veterans.  However, today, only 16% of the 117th Congress are veterans.  As a result, the Members of Congress tend to treat U.S. Generals and Admirals as experts and are reluctant to challenge their testimony.  Our military leaders are usually correct.  However, they can be spectacularly wrong, too, with dire consequences.  (See Tab A for examples.)

Quick facts

  1. Resources

    A. The Department of the Navy’s proposed FY2023 budget requests $230.8 billion; $180.5b for the Navy and $50.3b for the Marine Corps.  Of that $230.8b, 25% is for personnel, 34% is for O&M, 27% for procurement, 10% is for R&D, and 2.0% for military construction and family housing.

    B.  The U.S. Navy currently has a goal of a force size of 355 ships, as codified in the 2018 National Defense Authorization Act.  It currently has 297 deployable warships, with circa 58 forward deployed at any given time.  To put that number in context, in June 1982, the U.S. Navy had 555 active ships.  In June 1992, it had 471 ships.  In 2002, it had 313.  In 2012, it had 287.  Today, it has 297.  However, that smaller fleet has a higher operational tempo – and asset life “consumption” rate -than when the fleet was much larger.

  2. Advanced Technology

    A.  Technology has changed the Navy’s tactics.  Ships can mass their fires from over a thousand miles from the target area.  Too, the Navy is beginning to incorporate Artificial Intelligence, unmanned aerial, surface and sub-surface vessels, cyber-warfare, and stealth materials.  These changes call for new measures of effectiveness.  For example, the number of ship hulls available is the classic measure.  Another measure is the force mix: large ships, smaller ships, logistics vessels available to be formed into a self-sufficient group such as a Carrier Battle Group.  A third way to measure is the number of “shooters” available to a task force.  Each method reveals different insights, but, traditionally, analysts only use the number of hulls available as the yardstick.

    B.  Advanced technology, both in information processing and materials, has greatly increased the lethality and striking range of the Naval forces.  However, it also has dramatically reduced the ability of forward deployed forces to rearm in forward areas (for example, vertical missile launchers cannot be re-loaded at sea) or to repair high technology equipment at the organizational level.

    C. Advanced technology is very expensive.  Ships and especially 5th Generation aircraft (F-35) are significantly more expensive that the 4th Generation aircraft (A-10, F-18, F-16, F-15) they are replacing.  DoD plans to buy 604 F-35’s with a life cycle cost of circa $235m per airframe.  By comparison, an AV-8B was $30m; the F-18 C/D was $50m.  The maintenance for an F-35 is 6 to 10 times more expensive per hour that the aircraft that it will replace.

    D.  High costs effects tactical risk calculation.  Commanders are much less likely to risk assets in combat if they cannot be repaired in the field or will be very expensive to replace when inevitable combat loses occur.  For example, in September 2012, a small group of Taliban attacked a USMC air base in Helmand, Afghanistan and destroyed 6 USMC AV-8B’s and “significantly” damaged two others.  If those had been F-35’s, the total cost of the losses from that one attack would have been almost $2 billion dollars, or half the cost of a new frigate.

  3. Staffing and Logistics

    A. The decisions of Combatant Commanders on the operational tempo of deployed naval forces are divorced from service-level choices about training, manning, and equipping.  Under the 1986 Goldwater-Nichols Act, the service chiefs train, staff, and equip their forces with the resources allocated, whereas the Combatant Commanders use them.  For the past 20 years, the Navy has been burdened by contradictory but legal orders from combatant commanders to maintain levels of readiness and forward presence that are unsustainable with current resourcing.

    B.  Structurally, maritime forces are equipment-, rather than manpower-, intensive.  The support they require, shipyards and the logistics infrastructure, is industrial and expensive, and requires multiyear lead times.  However, they are often a target for Federal budget cutters.

      1)  According to a 2022 GAO Report, U.S. Navy program to improve its 4 public shipyards is showing results, but 20-year, $21 billion effort begun in 2018 has challenges.  The average condition has improved at 3 of the 4 yards, but the work backlog has increased by over $1.6 billion. 

      2)  Estimated costs for modernizing 3 dry docks have grown by $4 billion.

    C.  More than half the capital equipment at the shipyards is past its expected service life.

      3) Inflation, energy, environmental remediation, and historical preservation could add billions to the modernization price.

    C. The experience level of shipyards’ workforce has decreased, which is lowering work quality and efficiency.  For example, the percentage of the total civilian workforce with less than ten years of experience rose from 35% in FY 2006 to nearly 50% in FY 2014, while the percentage with 20–29 years of experience decreased from 31% to 12%.

    D.  During the 1920’s and 1930’s, the U.S. maintained its ability to rapidly expand the U.S. Navy by keeping shipyards busy building merchant ships.  Today, the U.S. Merchant Marine is negligible and U.S. shipyards are struggling.  In contrast, China already has the world’s largest naval fleet, with an avalanche of increasingly advanced surface ships in production.  China also underwrites a massive civilian shipbuilding program.

Policy Proposals

  1. Sponsor a comprehensive maritime policy review, including representatives from Congress, national security policy making bodies, academia, and maritime industries to resolve the contradictions between national security policy and maritime force design.

  2. Join the Congressional Shipbuilding Caucus.

  3. Review the impact of the Merchant Marine Act of 1920 (the Jones Act) on our maritime security.

  4. Establish formal training pipelines and apprenticeships, possibly with local Community Colleges, to train students in the trades for both public and private naval shipyards.

  5. Re-institute the annual Fleet Exercise to test the Fleet’s integration of traditional fire power, artificial intelligence, unmanned aircraft and vessels.

AVV, Inc POC: Michael H. Schoelwer


Attachment: Historical Examples of Flawed U.S. Maritime Decisions

  1.  In 1949, then-CJCS Gen. Omar Bradley told Congress that “large scale amphibious operations will never occur again.”  A year later, in September 1950, the 1st Marine Division landed at Inchon, Korea, broke the back of the North Korean offensive, and changed the course of the Korean War.

  2.  In the 1950’s, the leadership of the U.S. Air Force and Navy concluded that future air-to-air combat would exclusively use missiles and radar.  Accordingly, U.S. stopped equipping its fighters with guns, fighters were replaced by interceptors that were fast but lacked agility, and air combat maneuvering (ACM) was dropped from the training. 

  In 1965, U.S. F-4’s, ill-equipped for dog-fighting, were suddenly engaged in ACM with agile North Vietnamese MiG-19’s and MiG-21’s.  The result was minimal U.S. success but high losses.  In one 11-day period in 1967, the USS Enterprise lost 11 aircraft and 17 crewmembers.  During their 1967-1968 deployments, aircraft from the USS Ranger fired 55 Sparrow and Sidewinder missiles, with no hits.

  Only a comprehensive review of Navy fighter pilot training, weapons systems, and operations, (see the Ault Report) allowed the US to regain a modicum of air combat success over Viet Nam and raise the kill ratio from 1:1 in 1967 to 6:1 in 1969. 

  The U.S. eventually prevailed in the air war over Viet Nam because of better pilots and training.  However, it also raised the question of what would the U.S. do if it encountered equally qualified pilots with better equipment?