Sam Seitz

*This is an early manuscript of a policy piece appearing in the journal Excelsior

With a shrinking fleet and growing demands, the United States Navy faces a readiness crisis. Absent massive new investment, the Navy should forward deploy more assets to mitigate its readiness and presence problem.


During the Cold War, the United States built up to a 600-ship Navy.[1] With around 100 ships deployed at any given time, the Navy had a sufficient fleet size to ensure that it could sustain a global presence and rapidly deploy to trouble spots while still maintaining enough ships to train sailors not actively deployed. However, after the Cold War ended in the early 1990s, American policymakers cut the size of the fleet precipitously to cash in on the “peace dividend.[2]” While this allowed for significant savings, it also shrunk the Navy to pre-WWI levels. Recently, policymakers have become aware of the shortfall. Defense Secretary Ashton Carter has pushed for increased capabilities on each ship, and now many American warships carry significantly more firepower.[3] Nevertheless, a ship can only be in one place at any given time. While increased weapons range and lethality certainly ameliorate the shortfalls in American naval capabilities, they are not sufficient. Thus, even up-arming American warships still jeopardizes U.S. power projection capabilities.[4] The most obvious solution is to increase the size of the fleet, but with the current budget outlays and the immense costs of defense entitlements, it is far from clear that the Navy’s fleet size can be built back up to sustainable levels. Moreover, even if the Navy is able to buy new ships at the rate it wants, it will still require more than a decade to acquire a force of sufficient size.[5]

Policy Recommendations

The best interim solution, therefore, is to increase the number of forward-deployed vessels. With more ships already in theater, it is easier to maintain a global naval presence, and less time is required to surge assets into trouble spots. Specifically, the U.S. should forward-deploy a carrier strike group to Europe and add another forward-deployed strike group to the 7th Fleet in Japan. This model would double the number of carriers forward deployed to Japan and increase U.S. presence in Europe, allowing for faster response times to Russian provocations and crises in the Levant while also freeing up CVNs for use in the 5th Fleet.[6]

While other potential solutions exist, they all possess significant drawbacks. Simply maintaining the current force posture while increasing deployment windows risks overstretching the military and increasing attrition rates by demanding too much from sailors and marines. Indeed, a recent survey indicated that 49.8% of enlisted sailors and 65.5% of officers believed the current deployment tempo was unsustainable, with many questioning how much longer they would be able to serve given all the time they were required to spend away from home.[7] The Navy could also attempt to mitigate its readiness problem by decreasing its global presence. This would be unwise because it would increase crisis response time, make it more difficult to reassure allies, and decrease the length of operational periods since more time would be devoted to training and transiting into and out of theater.[8] Another proposed suggestion is to expand the use of rotational crews. That is, have one crew operating a ship while another crew trains on land. This would allow more continuous presence while minimizing crew burn out. However, it has the significant disadvantages of requiring two crews (thus doubling personnel costs) and allowing only limited maintenance while the crews switch out. Ultimately, the model proposed in this report best addresses current readiness shortfalls by increasing operational tempo, providing forward based maintenance facilities and personnel, and decreasing sailors’ time away from their family, thus increasing retention rates of experienced naval personnel.

Implementing the change would require a number of steps. First, the Navy would have to invest in increased port capacity in Rota, Spain and Yokosuka, Japan in order to accommodate the increased fleet presence.[9] Second, the U.S. would have to forward-deploy two more carrier strike groups. The Navy would thus have to decide which two carriers to forward deploy, basing this decision on other force requirements and strategic considerations. Finally, the Navy would need to coordinate with the Spanish and Japanese navies which would be hosting the extra American naval presence.

Key Facts:

  • The U.S. Navy’s fleet will reach its maximum size of 321 (under the most optimistic assumptions) ships in 2028 before declining below 300 ships by 2050[10]
  • The current fleet size is leading to readiness issues and lower morale[11]
  • Current budget outlays prevent significant growth of the fleet[12]
  • Stationing a carrier strike group in Rota and an extra strike group in Yokosuka ameliorates current naval overstretch and readiness problems, increases global U.S. naval presence, and increases naval retention rates

Pushing for this type of deployment reform is difficult at the individual level due to the Department of Defense’s exclusive control over deployment patterns. However, the idea of reforming carrier strike group basing is not new.[13] Many individuals, academics, and think tanks have proposed some degree of change in the carrier basing strategy. Therefore, the best approach for creating change is to highlight and publicize the litany of reports and studies that argue for change. The Department of Defense is often slow to reform, but many defense leaders are receptive to the academic community’s recommendations. Change does not require massive lobbying or group movement, it instead requires that key decision-makers in the DoD read and appreciate the many reports urging a change in the American carrier basing strategy. Getting these decision-makers to listen may not be easy, but the centralized nature of American military posture and strategy means that basing reform can occur relatively quickly once the decision is made.

[1] Abramson, Rudy. “Reagan Renews Vow for 600-Ship Navy: ‘Way to Prevent War Is to Be Prepared for It,’ He Tells Academy Class,” Los Angeles Times. May 23, 1985.

[2] Saunders, Norman C. “Defense spending in the 1990s – the effects of deeper cuts.” Monthly Labor Review. October 1990.

[3] Rowden, Thomas, Peter Gumataotao, and Peter Fanta. “’Distributed Lethality.’” USNI Proceedings. January 2015.

[4] Stephen G. Brooks, G. John Ikenberry, and William C. Wohlforth. “Don’t Come Home, America: The Case against Retrenchment.” International Security 37, no. 3 (Winter 2012/13): 7–51.

[5] An Analysis of the Navy’s Fiscal Year 2016 Century Shipbuilding Plan (Washington, DC: Congressional Budget Office, October 2015), p. 3

[6] The 5th Fleet is responsible for naval forces in the Persian GulfRed SeaArabian Sea, and parts of the Indian Ocean.

[7] Preserving the Navy’s Forward Presense with a Smaller Fleet (Washington, DC: Congressional Budget Office, March 2015), p. 11

[8] Clark, Bryan and Jesse Slowman. “Deploying Beyond Their Means: America’s Navy and Marine Corps at a Tipping Point.” Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessment. November 18, 2015.

[9] The base of America’s European destroyer squadron and 7th Fleet respectively

[10] An Analysis of the Navy’s Fiscal Year 2016 Century Shipbuilding Plan, p. 3

[11] Preserving the Navy’s Forward Presense with a Smaller Fleet, p. 11

[12] LaGrone, Sam. “FY 2017 Budget: Tight Navy Budget in Line With Pentagon Drive for High End Warfighting Power But Brings Increased Risk.” USNI News. February 9, 2016.

[13] See, for example, Cavas, Cristopher P. “Two USN Carriers in Japan?” Defense News. Novermber 19, 2015. and Oliver, J.D. “CHANGING THE PEACETIME DEPLOYMENT OF AIRCRAFT CARRIERS.” U.S. Naval War College. March 10, 1993.