San Diego Union Tribune

October 23, 2004

Number of Navy's warships causes concern
Capability of fleet said more important

By Otto Kreisher

WASHINGTON – The Navy's combat fleet is shrinking rapidly, with concerned Navy supporters warning that it soon will be smaller than it was before the United States became a global power during World War I.

But two analysts argue that the number of ships might not be the proper measurement of the combat capability of today's fleet. And a major Navy support organization recently observed that naval power consists of more than just warships.

The size of the Navy has varied tremendously throughout history, from the 17 warships that confronted the huge British Royal Navy in 1812 to the thousands that finished World War II.

But for today's bigger-fleet advocates the key numbers are 594, the size of the battle force fleet in 1991, at the end of President Reagan's defense buildup, and the 289 ships the Navy said were in service this week.

The Shipbuilding Association, the most vocal advocate of a bigger fleet, warns that at the current rate of building new vessels, the fleet will plunge to 180 ships by 2020, which would mean that "the United States will no longer be a superpower and our freedom and way of life will be at risk."

And a bipartisan group of 56 House members, many of whom represent Navy ports or commercial shipyards, sent a letter to Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld protesting the shipbuilding rate and warning that "America's naval forces are clearly stretched too thin now, and the stress will only grow worse as the fleet continues to decline."

Reps. Randy Cunningham, R-Escondido, and Susan Davis, D-San Diego, signed that letter.

But this week, Robert Work, a naval forces analyst and retired Marine colonel, argued in a briefing that "focusing on the number of ships is exactly the wrong thing to do."

Instead, Work said, the focus should be on combat capability and that current ships are far more capable than at any time when the fleet was bigger.

"Even though we're getting smaller, we have a more capable fleet," the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments analyst said.

To support that argument, Work noted the increased number of missiles warships can carry, the greater use of precision-guided munitions and the "network-centric" combination of satellite communications and computers that tie a battle group together.

At a different forum, Navy Cmdr. Gregory Glaros, an analyst in the Pentagon's Office of Force Transformation, similarly argued that the power of information is "undervalued."

"Our focus should not be so much on the counting of ships but in how ships relate to each other," he said.

But Norman Polmar, a noted naval historian and analyst, while agreeing that today's ships are more powerful, said numbers can be "significant."

"No matter how good a ship is, how capable, it can only be at sea part of the time . . . and a single ship can only be at one place at one time. If we have a confrontation in the Mediterranean, or the Persian Gulf, the ships engaged there can't be off the coast of Korea.

"So numbers do become significant when you are a world power and have global interests and commitments," Polmar said.

House Armed Services Committee chairman Duncan Hunter, R-El Cajon, agrees. "I believe we have to have a bigger Navy," Hunter said, adding that "we've done something meaningful to allow for more shipbuilding."

He noted a provision he put into the defense authorization bill that shifts the cost of some military health care out of the Defense Department. That will provide more than $5 billion that Congress wants spent on Army and Marine Corps personnel increases and equipment and on building more ships, he said.

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