Between 2003 and 2010 the small volunteer United States Army was badly overstretched, fighting wars in Afghanistan and Iraq in addition to conducting other missions around the world. Army personnel suffered a variety of negative consequences, including suicide, PTSD and divorce. The causes were obvious- constant deployment and redeployment without enough down time.
Now it is the Navy’s turn. United States Navy warships have been involved in three collisions and one unintentional grounding in 2017. The usual Navy reaction to collisions and groundings is to relieve ship captains of their commands- essentially saying that naval accidents are caused by incompetent commanders. However, a comparison of the present to the past shows that there can be more systemic causes of these accidents.
The recruiting slogan for the Navy between 2009 and 2014 was: America’s Navy: a Global Force for Good. Although the Navy has since moved on to another slogan, this particular slogan says a lot about how the Navy is currently utilized. The slogan indicates that the Navy is not just a military branch that fights wars. The Navy has important peacetime missions, such as suppressing piracy, providing security for the world’s commercial sea lanes, and giving assistance to natural catastrophe victims everywhere. Navy ships are constantly patrolling in every ocean and sea. It can be argued that the Navy more consistently exemplifies America’s global peacekeeper role than any other military service.
Most Americans don’t realize just how small our current Navy really is. The Navy is currently carrying out these constant missions with 276 deployable commissioned ships. This may sound like a lot of ships, but not compared to the past. At the end of WWII the Navy was operating almost 7000 ships! The Navy’s mission in WWII was singular: fight the enemy and help win the war. Now we are asking the Navy to complete multiple missions, including various intervals of war-fighting, with a fleet that is only 4 percent of the size of our WWII fleet. Personnel statistics tell a similar story. The Navy currently has 340.000 active duty personnel, and in WWII we had 4,200,000 on active naval duty. In terms of personnel the Navy is only 8 percent as big as it was in WWII. Granted, we are not currently fighting a massive global war, but the oceans have not shrunk, and the Navy’s missions have only expanded.
Chief of Naval Operations Admiral John Richardson has called for a broader inquiry to assess underlying causal factors. Hopefully the broader inquiry will expose systemic causes rather than blaming personnel. The ultimate causes are not mysterious; similar to the Army, the United States Navy is simply too small to carry out the number of assigned missions without negative consequences. Constant deployment is stressful for the ships, the technology and the people who man the ships. As stress goes up, situational awareness and accurate decision making go down.
The long-term solution is seemingly obvious: commission more ships and enlist more personnel, or reduce the missions and deployments. It is unclear which direction the Trump administration will go. The President has called for expanding the fleet to 350 ships, but he has also campaigned on reducing America’s global footprint. Mr. Trump has discovered that the latter solution is not so easy to implement.
Our allies may complain about American behavior, but they understand that the world, and their own security, is endangered without America’s global presence. No other democratic nation has the economic or military power to take over our role. Therefore the United States Navy will very likely continue to be a constantly patrolling force for global good. We civilians should not only be grateful for the service of Navy personnel; we should also feel ashamed that we are essentially abusing their valiance by not giving them the resources to do their duty without enduring the stress that none of us would want to endure.