America’s Navy

Admiral Jonathan Greenert at the Council on November 15, 2013

Admiral Jonathan Greenert, the Chief of Naval Operations for the US Navy and the Navy’s representative on the Joint Chiefs of Staff, made a strong case on Friday for why the US Navy is likely to expand in the coming decade, even as other parts of the military will experience cutbacks. “Our product is presence,” he said, “forward presence around the world in places that matter.” And with 90% of global trade carried by water, he went on to list the six key choke points for global trade which the Navy focuses on in particular: the Strait of Gibraltar, the Suez Canal, Bab-el-Mandeb at the mouth of the Red Sea, the Strait of Hormuz at the mouth of the Arabian Gulf, the Malacca Strait and the Panama Canal.

The US Navy currently has 285 ships, of which 99 are deployed, with more than half (about 52) deployed in the Asia-Pacific region. This allows for a rapid response to a ballistic missile threat from a country like North Korea, or to natural disasters like typhoons – and there are currently 10 US Navy ships off the coast of the Philippines delivering aid after Typhoon Haiyan. The next largest deployment of US Navy ships is around the Arabian Gulf, where there are currently about 30 ships.

Under current shipbuilding schedules Admiral Greenert said that, by the end of the decade, the US Navy is set to have 300 ships, with 116 deployed at any given time. The number of ships in the Pacific is slated to increase from 52 to 60 – an area which will see an increasing amount of world trade, and an increasing need for US security oversight. “We are a growing Navy.”

When asked about his highest priorities, he said the Navy needs to look at cyber warfare, at unmanned remotely-controlled vehicles, at high-tech innovations like laser guns and electro-magnetic tools – “but the bottom line is people – we must attract the best of our youth.”

He wowed the audience with some slides of the newly-designed Littoral Combat Ships, which come in two versions. These ships are built with a modular concept so they can be quickly reconfigured for a variety of different uses - unlike old-style destroyers that are very hard to convert for different purposes. “It is more about payloads than about the platform for its own sake”. Some of these new ships will carry laser guns for which the cost per round is $1, compared to a missile that generally costs $500,000 to $ 1m. For longer ranges the Navy is working on electromagnetic railguns which can shoot a slug of metal with great accuracy for $25,000 each – in place of missiles of equal range that cost over a million dollars.

The Admiral acknowledged the serious cost overruns and delays in building USS Gerald Ford, but said much of that was because the carrier is the first in its class, and a new design always produces unforeseen challenges. The last time the US designed an aircraft carrier was in the 1960s, as carriers are built to last for 50 years. The USS Gerald Ford and the ones that follow will be able to perform 150 launches and recoveries of aircraft a day, up from 120 a day for the current carriers, it will have better catapults and arresting techniques – and it is designed to be run by a crew that is 25% smaller dramatically reducing personnel costs.

One questioner asked why the US invested in such sophisticated weaponry to stay ahead of China when it was very unlikely that we would ever end up in a shooting war with China. Admiral Greenert conceded that with all the economic interconnectedness between the US and China it was unlikely we would end up in a “hot war” with Beijing – but he said that there were many other threats out there. “It is not just China – Syria, for example, has some very high-tech air defense systems they bought from Russia. The world we live in is highly interconnected – that is good from the point of view of the economy, but bad from the point of view of weapons sales.”