war on the rocks

Posture vs. Presence and the Future of American Naval Forces

January 4, 2016

Steve Wills’ reflection on the Budget Memo from Secretary of Defense Carter to Secretary of the Navy Mabus made some important observations about the way the Office of the Secretary of Defense is looking to rebalance the Navy’s focus. However, he missed one important element: the memo’s language about naval presence. Carter wrote that he believes that the Navy needs to move away from its focus on “presence” and place more weight on the “posture” side of the scale. This rebalancing might have significant strategic implications for American naval planning.

A recent report by Bryan Clark and Jesse Sloman contends that current demands for near-constant forward presence of the naval services run the risk of breaking the force because maintenance and training are being sacrificed to meet this demand. This should come as no surprise to anyone familiar with what the Navy and Marine Corps have been called to do since 9/11.

Clark and Sloman have analyzed the impact of longer and more stressful deployments since 1998 and quantified that evidence in their report. With 14 charts and graphs in its 24 pages, the study shows that the American demand for naval forces has remained constant since 1998 while the number of hulls has shrunk by about 20 percent. Consequently, the Navy and Marine Corps are now working and deploying 20 percent more than 1998. The stark reality is the demand signal from combatant commanders is not going away. Clark and Sloman realize this and offer four options to meet current and future needs: deploy longer or more often; build more ships; base more forces overseas; or change force packages.

The first option, deploying longer and more often, is the de facto choice for the Navy, but it is not sustainable. Yet, given existing financial constraints, this option is best left on the table. Option two, building more ships, is a nice idea but unrealistic given financial realities. This option is probably even more unrealistic now given Carter’s recent directive to limit building Littoral Combat Ships to 40, instead of 52. While some in the Navy may cheer this decision, the loss of 12 ships significantly impacts the Navy’s 30-year shipbuilding plan and the small surface combatants that normally conduct presence missions.

The third recommendation, basing additional forces overseas, is worth careful consideration. The study makes a compelling argument for the benefits of permanently stationing a second carrier and a three-ship amphibious readiness group in the Pacific. Such a recommendation seems counterintuitive, but CSBA’s analysis clearly shows this course of action would in fact meet 7th Fleet carrier strike group requirements, as well as the requirements for a carrier strike group in European Command and Central Command. Moreover, as there is already existing base infrastructure overseas, it seems logical to pursue this course of action.

The final option, changing force packages, is geared towards offering more options to the combatant commands. Clark compares this option to ordering a la carte off a menu instead of the current “full meal” one gets when an amphibious readiness group or carrier strike group deploys. This idea certainly has merit and could better meet the needs of the combatant commands, but such a notion goes against the Navy’s long standing training and certification process. Moreover, the Navy seems content to maintain the current deployment model as it is easier to work up and certify an amphibious readiness group or carrier strike group for deployment than one or two ships.

However, there seems to be some trepidation on the part of Navy and Marine Corps leadership in moving forward with a single option. In a radio interview on Federal News Radio, Clark was asked what option Navy and Marine Corps leadership is pursing. He stated, “they kind of want to pursue all four options I lay out in the report.” While this statement is disappointing it was not surprising given the Navy’s penchant for wanting “all inclusive packages.” Yet, given the demand for naval forces and the existing budgetary limitations, it seems obvious that the Navy and Marine Corps would consider basing additional forces overseas as a viable option.

Based on the CSBA analysis, overseas basing is a win-win solution. Combatant command requirements could be more easily met without deferring maintenance, dwell time would be driven down, and the Department of the Navy would not have to scramble to find additional funding to sustain current operation tempos. Finally, this option would almost certainly cause the least amount of angst amongst sailors as overseas tours are generally more popular than back-to-back deployments.


Bob Poling is a retired Naval Officer who spent 24 years on active duty including tours in cruisers, destroyers and as commanding officer of Maritime Expeditionary Security Squadron TWO and Mission Commander of Southern Partnership Station 2013. From May 2011 to May 2015 Bob served on the faculty of the Air War College teaching in the Departments of Strategy and Warfighting. He was the Naval History and Heritage Command 2014-2015 Samuel Eliot Morison scholar and is pursuing his PhD in Defense Studies with King’s College London.