At the same time as the Obama administration is heralding a strategic “pivot” towards Asia and the growing threat of Chinese military modernization, the U.S. Navy continues to put on a brave face in the middle of a growing readiness crisis. While not new, this alarming trend was highlighted again this week when Navy officials announced that, for the second time in seven months, the USS Essex, a Marine Corps amphibious assault ship, has failed to meet a commitment at sea due to equipment failure or maintenance issues.
The Navy’s No. 2 wasn’t understating the problem when he told Congress last year: “The stress on the force is real. And it has been relentless.”
This is not an isolated occurrence. A high operational tempo over the past decade has put an incredible strain upon all of America’s military. As fewer ships spend less time at home making repairs, regular wear and tear takes a heavy toll. In fact, in 2011, nearly one-quarter of the entire surface fleet failed inspection. The Navy has 22 cruisers in service and every one of them has cracks in the aluminum superstructure. Meanwhile, half of the Navy’s deployable aircraft are not combat ready and engines aboard two F/A-18s have caught fire aboard ships underway.
While the Navy has shrunk by 15 percent since 1998, it has deployed a relatively constant number of ships at sea at any given time. Between two major wars in the Middle East, a third in Libya, anti-piracy operations off the Horn of Africa, disaster relief in Asia, and maritime deterrence in the Western Pacific, the U.S. military has increasingly been asked to do more with less.
The USS Essex was supposed to take part in Cobra Gold—a joint exercise with Thailand—before it had to back out due to mechanical problems. In many ways, this incident can be seen as a metaphor for the entire shift to Asia. On paper, it sounds like a smart and forward-thinking policy—it even involves allies and burden-sharing. What’s not to love?
But without the proper resources, Cobra Gold, as well as the larger “pivot” and its supposed emphasis on air and naval power, is just a paper tiger.
If the administration is serious about properly resourcing an American military emphasis in the Pacific while not taking our eye off the ball everywhere else, the president must send over a budget that proposes to reverse the decline of the Navy’s size, fleet, and readiness. Anything less should be called out for what it really is: a strategy that says one thing and a budget that does another.