The shrinking size of the fleet is just one variable in considering its adequacy: the ability to perform assigned missions, especially after withstanding whatever threats may exist, is a far better measure than mere numbers.
As described by the Congressional Research Service, a core mission is to influence “events ashore by countering both land- and sea-based military forces of potential regional threats…including improved Chinese military forces and non-state terrorist organizations.”
This is similar to the mission described by former defense secretary Robert Gates: “to enhance…overall posture and capabilities in the Asia-Pacific region” with “numbers, speed, and agility to operate in shallow waters.”
Whether or not these sentiments are only passing conventional wisdom or profound insight, they represent the current mission. Unfortunately, it is precisely those areas of operation where the mismatch between capabilities and threats is most disconcerting.
The Diesel-Electric Submarine Threat
To put it simply, if naval exercises in the last two decades involving foreign diesel-electric submarines had been actual combat, most if not all, U.S. aircraft carriers would be at the bottom of the ocean: as many as 10 U.S. aircraft carriers have been reported “sunk” in these exercises.
The analytically conservative Congressional Budget Office was alarmed enough to officially report that “some analysts argue that the Navy is not very good at locating diesel-electric submarines, especially in noisy, shallower waters near coastal areas. Exercises with allied navies that use diesel-electric submarines confirm that problem…[For example,] Israeli diesel-electric submarines, which until recently were relatively old, are said to always ‘sink’ some of the large and powerful warships of the U.S. Sixth Fleet in exercises. And most recently, an Australian Collins-class submarine penetrated a U.S. carrier battlegroup and was in a position to sink an aircraft carrier during exercises off Hawaii in May 2000.”
There have been many such exercise “sinkings” since then, including aircraft carriers Reagan and Lincoln.
Moreover, the problem stems not just from the latest, 21st-century diesel-electric submarine technology from the West, it occurs in the form of various earlier technology submarines built in Russia, operated by China, and/or available to various lesser navies, such as Peru’s, and throughout the world.
The latter navies include North Korea’s and Iran’s. The problem was dramatically demonstrated when a Chinese Song-class submarine surfaced—previously undetected—in the middle of a U.S. carrier battlegroup much too close for comfort to the USS Kittyhawk in 2006.
Nor is this problem new. When the U.S. Navy still possessed diesel-electric submarines (until 1990), aircraft carrier and major surface combatants were routinely “sunk” in exercises—unless carrier advocates had the exercise ruling reversed for the sake of appearances.
Indeed, the Navy was so neurotic about the repetitive success of this bureaucratically-disfavored submarine technology that in the 1980s it declared classified an analysis of exercises demonstrating their high degree of success written by a congressional staffer in the office of Senator Gary Hart (D-Colo.) on the Senate Armed Services Committee based on open source materials. I came across the memo in a classified-materials safe while working at the General Accounting Office [now the Government Accountability Office] and was informed that the Navy insisted that any public record of the analysis be suppressed via classification. (end of excerpt)
Click here for the full story, on the Time Battleland blog.