Right Sizing the USN-USMC Fleet

By Robbin Laird

Recently, former Secretary Navy John Lehman teed up a discussion of how to ensure that the USN-USMC team is enabled to play its role in the 21st century.

His discussion was launched by a reference to an AOL Defense piece where I am on the editorial board of contributors.

In the piece, to which Lehman referred, Sydney Feedberg, Jr. presented comments by the Under Secretary Work’s providing a spirited defense of the Obama Administration’s approach to force building for the USN-USMC team.

“There is no subterfuge about this at all,” Work said ahead of a key House Armed Services Committee oversight meeting on the size of the fleet, amidst accusations [since retracted] by “Information Dissemination” blogger Raymond “Galrahn” Pritchett that the service is counting support vessels it never previously included in its “battle force” to bulk up its current and projected numbers. “The 300 ships that we [will] have in 2019 are ships that we count right now, right now,” he said, and do not include such traditionally excluded auxiliaries as small patrol craft or hospital ships.

Work did not deny that the Navy might want to count such craft sometime in the future: “We have not looked at the battle force counting rules, which are extremely arcane, since the early eighties,” he said, back when Reagan’s politically savvy Navy Secretary, John Lehman, set up the system in context of a clash with the Soviet Union and to support his push for a 600-ship fleet. But, Work insisted, the Navy has not changed the system yet.


Lehman underscored that “the seas are great and our Navy is small.

(Once could add as a parenthesis that Pacific is even bigger than that, please see the piece by Ed Timperlake


Mr. Work’s statement to AOL Defense that “the United States will be everywhere in the world that it has been. And it will be as much (present) as the 600-ship navy” is not persuasive.”

And Lehman underscored that the approach seems to be retire older ships now and build more in the relatively distant future.  “In order to reach a 350 ship fleet in our lifetime., we will need to increase shipbuilding to an average of 15 ships every year.”


I would add to Lehman’s concern that there is also a fundamental question of what ships we intend to build.

The Administration has emphasized the Littoral Combat Ship as a numbers enhancer;

but in many ways the LCS is more of a force drainer than it is a force multiplier.

The ship represents the classic approach of focusing on a platform without looking profoundly at the context of operational and sustainment approaches.

Work spoke in his earlier writings of “surging LCSs” to a problem. There is a small issue here – the LCS is so relatively small that it is has VERY limited organic support.

The ship is built around “distance” support as well.

This means that the already challenged Military Sealift Command will have to be able to support the “surging” LCS fleet and if the fleet is disaggregated this will put significant stress on an already challenged fleet.

And due to “distance support,” there is the need to be supported by forward bases, the costs of which too should be folded in.

In addition, the LCS is survivable via being connected to big brother assets to which it can reach back.

These would be assets on amphibs, carriers, on land based air or submarines to deliver the scalable force necessary to ensure surviviability and viability.

In other words, there is a significant cost as well to ensuring that it is near land or sea bases to provide for scalability.

There is a better way.

Curtail the numbers of LCS’s and plus up the amphibious fleet and the MSC fleet.

More T-AKE ships plus LPD-17s and American class ships provide sustainable forward presence, which can scale up and back to foreign naval and air assets or to large deck carriers and to USAF assets.

But they don’t need this be sustained and viable, unlike the LCS.

In other words, Lehman’s point about the size of the fleet is true in both senses: numbers of ships and types of ships to be built.

The recent Bold Alligator 2012 exercise underscored the role, which an expeditionary strike group can play in shaping a sea base capability which can be both a presence and a warfighting force.

It is one as well which demonstrates to allies that they are working with a global power, not an anti-piracy gendarmerie.







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One response to “Right Sizing the USN-USMC Fleet”

  1. Vince Martinez says:

    It is extremely difficult to assess the operational impact of the Naval Services without looking at all the variables. Although quantity has a quality in and of itself, the impact of a naval fleet relative to amphibious operations is also an expression of the capabilities that are embarked aboard–especially given the fact that much of the impact comes from those capabilities that are designed to fight from the ship, or subsequently operate ashore. The operational impact of the Naval Force, then, cannot be derived adequately simply from counting up the numbers and types of ships. While battle force calculations are not that simple in practice, it is a true that for an accurate assessment of operational impact, the force multipliers that are brought to bear through the Marine Air Ground Task Force (MAGTF), as an example, need to be assessed concurrently if we are to determine the operational impact of an amphibious ship posture. Force multipliers like the JSF do bring an operational advantage that can potentially mitigate ship quantity shortfalls relative to desired naval service operational impact, but that can’t be assessed if that is not included as part of the initial calculus. Exercises like Bold Alligator 2012, as discussed and highlighted in this forum, demonstrate that a holistic vision for amphibious capabilities that spans both the Navy and Marine Corps team are what is required to optimally define the best way forward for our Naval Services. Without a clear…

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