The U.S. Navy last month announced a reduction in fleet requirement that experts warn could further stress a fleet already stretched thin.
The Navy announced it was reducing the size of its fleet from 313 to 306 to Congress last month, telling lawmakers the cuts were strategic and not due to the Pentagon’s budget crunch, which has forced America’s armed forces to enact widespread reforms.
The Navy currently has 285 warships and had vowed to increase the fleet to 313 over coming years, per the original fleet requirement plans. The Navy will now halt expansion at 306 ships, according to a recent announcement.
"The Navy’s 2013 shipbuilding plan simply builds fewer ships," said Mackenzie Eaglen, a former Defense Department official. "Under the current five year budget, the Navy will build 16 fewer ships and retire seven additional ships early. The latest revised guidance is simply catching up to reality."
"This will surely increase risk on these assets and the people manning them in the near-term," Eaglen said. "And this increased demand on sailors, Marines, and ships comes at the exact time the admiral in charge of the surface fleet just announced that there are ‘Not enough people, not enough parts, not enough training, not enough everything.’ "
The Navy has not been able to increase the fleet to more than 300 ships due to waning resources and other factors, despite its projections.
"Navy’s 313-ship fleet size requirement for combatant vessels was originally identified in the 2005 Force Structure Assessment (FSA) and revalidated in 2010," states the document sent to Congress.
"Since 2010, however, there have been several actions that have impacted Navy forced structure requirements," including a shift in shipbuilding programs and remodeled operational plans, the Navy said.
Following an updated review in 2012, Navy brass "identified a 306-ship combatant force as the current requirement to enable Navy to deter and respond to crisis and war, and protect the interconnected systems of trade, information, and security that underpin American prosperity," according to the notification.
The newly announced ship reduction "possesses the requisite capability and capacity to deliver credible deterrence, sea control, and power projection to deter or contain conflict and, if called upon, the fight and win our nation’s wars," the Navy maintains.
However, experts say that even the reduced projections are unrealistic.
"Regardless, at no point over the newest 30-year plan will the Navy approach 313 or even 306 ships, and the fleet falls under 300 ships for nearly half of its three decades," Eaglen said. "In fact, the Navy will not reach a fleet size of 300 ships for another decade."
The greatest reduction under the revised plan will hit the Navy’s large surface combatant ships, or warships built to wage combat on the open seas against other vessels.
"A reduction of large surface combatants—cruisers and destroyers—from 94 to 88 ships, directly related to plans to move four ballistic-missile defense destroyers from the U.S. East Coast to form a forward-deployed naval force based at Rota, Spain," Defense News reported. "The Navy previously noted 10 ships were needed to meet the rotational requirement in the Mediterranean region."
Military experts warn that such reductions could accelerate the Navy’s decline in readiness for combat.
This is "yet another Navy shipbuilding plan that revises downward the fleet size will only exacerbate all of the stresses on the force and accelerate the decline in readiness," said Eaglen, currently a fellow at the American Enterprise Institute.
"America’s Navy is struggling to meet growing demand while resources continue to decline: Ships and sailors are operating at reduced readiness levels across the fleet as Band-Aid fixes of the past are no longer holding up," Eaglen said.
"Maintenance is suffering and training is deteriorating" as sailors are forced to increase the number and length of their deployments, Eaglen said.
While the Navy officially maintains that budgetary woes are not to blame for the reduction, outside experts have speculated that money must be a concern.
"Unofficially, there is another huge factor: money," Wired reported Monday. "For all the talk inside the Pentagon about strategy driving budgets and not the other way around, the Navy is anticipating shrinkage right as it also anticipates playing a larger role in U.S. national security."
A series of massive budget cuts known as sequestration could further complicate the Navy’s plans. If Congress fails to strike a compromise by March 1 aimed at staving off nearly $500 billion in defense cuts there could be even fewer funds to boost the fleet in the coming years.
The Pentagon is expected this week to submit to the White House its plan to deal with the sequester, according to Defense News.
Reports indicate that nearly 46,000 Pentagon employees could be furloughed should sequestration take place.