Ships! Ships! All We Need is Ships!
Within weeks of the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, then-Brig. Gen. Dwight Eisenhower, newly installed as the Army’s Chief of War Plans Division, wryly commented in his diary, “Ships! Ships! All We Need is Ships!” The insatiable need for ships, and personnel to man them, was a central driver of the war effort. In January 1942, President Franklin Roosevelt said that the nation must build ships “to the utmost limit of our national capacity.” His budget boldly called for a nearly one thousand percent increase in shipping tonnage by the end of 1943. The nation responded in a way seemingly unfathomable today. Ships were built with unparalleled speed, sometimes within weeks, and immediately sailed in perilous waters to equip, transport, and fight throughout the world.
Today, the United States is at a significant crossroads in designing a future fleet to meet its maritime needs. The Department of Defense has yet to endorse the Navy and Marine Corps’ Integrated Force Structure Assessment, encompassing manned and unmanned ships. In addition, national discussion continues about whether the U.S. Navy can build a fleet of 355 ships. These assessments, and deliberations concerning the total number of naval ships, are useful but unfortunately the narrative is too narrowly focused.
The ability to project sea power must be a strategic priority for the entire government and not solely a U.S. Navy challenge to solve. Strategist Alfred T. Mahan advocated the necessity of government involvement and offered that “in the matter of sea power, the most brilliant successes have followed where there has been intelligent direction by a government fully imbued with the spirit of the people and conscious of its true general bent.” America’s domestic and international affairs are intrinsically linked to the sea. Of the 50 states, 41 are connected by navigable waterways, linking them to a global trade network that is the lifeblood of the economy.
The United States already has more than 1,000 military, government-owned, and commercial ships of various sizes available for steady state and crisis operations that could be employed as part of a future U.S. maritime strategy. These ships, many of which are oceangoing and deployable worldwide, conduct defense and homeland security missions and provide sealift capability for the nation. In fact, approximately seventy percent of the nation’s fleet is managed not by the Navy but by the Coast Guard, Army, and other maritime organizations.
These vessels contribute to the collective security of the nation by ensuring power projection and economic security in times of peace and crisis. To meet its maritime needs, the United States should promote a balanced investment strategy that can enhance the collective strength of its sea services and leverage the contributions of the reserve and Merchant Marine fleets that are so critical to national security. This does not suggest decreasing Navy financial allocations to help others, but rather to explore areas where common interests are better synthesized to reduce inefficiencies and maximize effectiveness.
A unified national fleet approach enables the United States to integrate at a larger scale more effectively than any rival in the global maritime domain. Today, China is working to improve the integration of the largest commercial shipbuilding infrastructure, largest fishing fleet, largest coast guard, and second largest navy in the world. This integration enables China to more effectively project sea power as they continue a “period of strategic opportunity.” Additionally, as the Arctic becomes more accessible due to climate change, Russia is poised to leverage its ice breaking fleet to further exploit the region for military and economic purposes. While there may be no clear winner in a protracted great-power competition, a strong and well-integrated United States maritime fleet will serve American security and economic interests, as well as those of its allies and partners.
Today’s National Fleet
The Department of the Navy’s annual $205 billion budget for shipbuilding and operations dwarfs that of the other agencies that operate the remainder of the American fleet. Its capabilities and manpower necessitate this annual investment. The Navy currently has 299 ships, comprising aircraft carriers, combatants, submarines, and amphibious warfare vessels. It also includes nearly 50 percent of the Military Sealift Command’s ship capacity, which provides combat and logistical support to the sea services. The remaining 65 ships are used for special missions and sealift. These vessels provide the nation with niche capabilities. For example, its hospital ships MERCY and COMFORT recently deployed to Los Angeles and New York for the COVID-19 pandemic.
Complementing the Navy is the Coast Guard’s fleet of 255 ships. In addition to executing its Department of Homeland Security missions, the Coast Guard surges for disasters and regularly integrates into the joint force for planned and contingency operations. Defense readiness is one of its 11 statutory missions. Coast Guard assets deploy worldwide in support of all six geographic combatant commanders and are warships of the United States.
Navy and Coast Guard warships are not the only elements of American maritime power. In addition to warships, other maritime assets should also be considered as part of a national fleet. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s 15 research vessels bring unique capabilities for science, climate, hydrographic, and oceanographic studies. The Army has 132 watercraft that, while recently considered for elimination, are critical to the its ability to deliver supplies in contested areas.
Under the Department of Transportation, the Maritime Administration administers 89 reserve ships that provide additional sealift for military operations, disaster relief, and other maritime needs. Additionally, the United States maintains sealift agreements with approximately 155 American-flagged (Merchant Marine) vessels through two programs — the Maritime Security Program and the Voluntary Intermodal Sealift Agreement. The first of these involves the government incentivizing ships through financial stipends; in return, vessels are compelled to remain available for government service in times of emergency. Similarly, the latter program provides cargo preference to vessels in return for mandatory service when required by the Department of Defense. These maritime sealift programs complement the Air Mobility Command’s Civil Reserve Airlift Fleet, which was first activated for operations Desert Shield and Storm. Commercial aircraft moved over 321 thousand passengers and 145 thousand tons of cargo to support combat operations.
The Way Ahead
In the past, the Navy and Coast Guard developed national fleet plans to improve efficiency and effectiveness in several functional areas such as training, communications, sensors, and weapons systems. While these plans have enhanced their commonality and interoperability, this model could be expanded to stimulate cooperation between all agencies with maritime fleets. A unified national fleet of more than 1,000 ships would enrich the ability to project sea power. Integration does not require government reorganization, or the creation of a joint maritime command. Instead, a coordinating body within the executive branch is required to join the myriad elements of procurement, force structure, maintenance, and mission support currently employed by the disparate maritime fleets.
To achieve integration at such a large scale, a presidential commission should be immediately established to make tangible recommendations in developing a truly unified national fleet, leveraging the strength of four cabinet-level departments and several agencies to better support the four pillars of the U.S. National Security Strategy. The commission would bring together the best minds from the military (active and retired), government, industry, and other stakeholders to study sea power and offer recommendations to strengthen it within the existing agency structure. The commission would increase readiness by identifying efficiencies in shipbuilding and ship repair and ways to improve communications capabilities across the entire fleet.
In addition, such a commission could also study ways to better leverage the fleet for power projection to maintain influence in strategically important areas around the globe. Shipbuilding budgets were under significant fiscal pressure before the COVID-19 pandemic gripped the nation. There is now great uncertainty about the long-term economic impacts to the nation and future discretionary budgets. Services are likely to be forced to make difficult fiscal decisions in the years ahead; a more integrated approach may garner needed efficiencies. A commission could be the necessary catalyst for change, as well as helping to overcome inherent budget stovepipes.
Presidential commissions are useful instruments for change and have promoted interagency coordination at the highest levels in the U.S. government in the past. In 1983, President Ronald Reagan established a bipartisan commission, chaired by General Brent Scowcroft, to review the nation’s strategic forces. The commission was the “driving force” in gaining congressional approval of intercontinental ballistic missiles during an important period of the Cold War. Additionally, in a study about understanding presidential commissions, Dr. Amy B. Zegart commented that “[w]ith so many organized interests on so many issues, forging consensus through commission participation offers an effective use of presidential authority.” Establishing a commission could elevate sea power to the forefront and make tangible recommendations for the future.
The United States does not have to wait for a watershed event like Pearl Harbor to coordinate 1,000 ships. By establishing a presidential commission, a collective road map could be established now to safeguard the nation’s global maritime interests. In Trent Home’s book Learning War, a historic perspective about how the U.S. Navy won World War II in the Pacific, he offers the following lesson: “Regardless of the dominant technologies or ship types, the key to success in naval war remained the coordinated action of a modern fleet.”
America’s maritime strength took roots in the early days of the republic through the purchase of its first frigates and cutters. Through demonstrations of naval presence and diplomacy, like President Roosevelt’s Great White Fleet, to the unparalleled buildup of more than 6,000 naval and commercial ships during World War II, the United States has projected power abroad using all types of ships. American security and economic prosperity require a unified national fleet to confront existing and burgeoning maritime threats. A presidential commission can serve as a compass to point the nation’s 1,000 ships in the right direction.
Cmdr. Jeff W. Benson is a military fellow with the Center for Strategic and International Studies and commanded the USS Stethem (DDG-63), forward deployed in Japan, from 2017 to 2019. His views are his own and do not represent those of the Departments of Defense or the Navy.
Cmdr. Mark A. McDonnell is a military fellow with the Center for Strategic and International Studies and commanded USCGC CAMPBELL (WMEC 909), homeported in Kittery, ME, from 2017 to 2019. His views are his own and do not represent those of the Department of Homeland Security or the U.S. Coast Guard.