US Foreign Policy

Benchmarking the Navy’s Pacific Shift

Shifts in U.S. Navy force structure are one compelling, specific way to understand what the military aspect of the “pivot” or “rebalance” to Asia-Pacific means. According to then-Defense Secretary Leon Panetta:

By 2020 the Navy will reposture its forces from today’s roughly 50/50 percent split between the Pacific and the Atlantic to about a 60/40 split between those oceans. That will include six aircraft carriers in this region, a majority of our cruisers, destroyers, Littoral Combat Ships, and submarines.

Such a crisp figure clearly symbolizes the firmness of U.S. commitments to allies like Japan and South Korea as well as to potential adversaries like China and North Korea. Still, questions persist about whether the details live up to their billing. Unpacking this statistic is one way to measure the pivot’s progress, yet it also makes the message a bit more complicated. Indeed, the Pentagon may emphasize this ratio for its signaling power rather than as a precise statement of fact.

Unlike strategy, ships are countable – even if imperfectly. One limitation, inherent in this exercise, is that simple counts treat carriers the same as frigates, submarines the same as destroyers, and so forth, despite ships’ very different capabilities and symbolic values. There also are methodology challenges. Ships could be “in the Pacific” based on their present physical location, the geographic combatant commander under whose operational control they fall, or their home port. Meanwhile ships routinely are commissioned and retired, changing the balance within fleets and across the Navy.

Still snapshots of the fleet are readily doable, and home ports provide an accessible, stable, and reasonable metric.

One part of Panetta’s remark is the division of specific ships. A majority of cruisers, destroyers, and submarines are supposed to be in the Pacific, and that is already true. Only five of America’s 10 aircraft carriers have a Pacific home port, but fielding the USS Gerald Ford in 2015 could make six possible. Meanwhile, Littoral Combat Ships are a special case because only three of 20 have been commissioned to date, yet each of those three has San Diego as its permanent station.

This part of the plan was nearly done as soon as Panetta announced it, and adding the Ford could achieve it.The other part is shifting naval forces so that 60 percent are in the Pacific. Deputy Defense Secretary Ashton Carter explained last July at least one way that the Pentagon will make that happen:

As Secretary Panetta said, we intend to have 60 percent – historic high – of our naval assets based in the Pacific by 2020, a substantial historical shift. We will have a net increase of one aircraft carrier, four destroyers, three Zumwalt destroyers, ten Littoral Combat Ships, and two submarines in the Pacific in the coming years.

By addressing a “net increase,” Carter seems to be referring to new generations being procured. This almost certainly is the case with Ford carriers and Zumwalt destroyers, which are not yet fielded, and Littoral Combat Ships, of which only three of 20 have been commissioned so far. The same likely goes for Virginia submarines, of which six are presently under construction, and even the four Arleigh Burke destroyers presently in the yard.

Here’s where unpacking the Pacific fraction gets really complicated. Each new ship will increase the numerator but possibly also the denominator. Ships that join the fleet without another retiring will have a smaller impact than outright shifts from the Atlantic to the Pacific.

Determining whether the additions favor the Pacific sufficiently to cross the 60 percent threshold would require knowing the construction schedules and homeporting decisions for everything in the acquisition pipeline through 2020, as well as the retirement details for everything leaving service at the same time.

Of course, these factors are largely in the Pentagon’s control, even if the budgets have become less certain.* It may well be on pace to reach 60 percent. Fifty-six percent of carriers, cruisers, destroyers, LCS’, and submarines – the classes Panetta and Carter named – already are in the Pacific (94 out of 169). Panetta seemed to leave open the possibility of including other classes as well. If amphibious ships, mine clearers, and frigates also are tallied, the ratio stays at 56 percent but the count grows to 239, providing a wider range of hulls that could contribute to the shift. Observers like retired Rear Admiral Michael McDevitt have noted that relatively few ships have to move in order to cross this threshold.

Treating very distinct ships as equivalent is necessary to build this fraction. Doing so provides the Pentagon with a real benefit, but it comes at a cost.

Tying the rebalance to a ratio of naval presence neglects the capability implications of these changes. Adding an aircraft carrier, two submarines, and seven destroyers in the Pacific is powerful irrespective of the ratio. Counting them in the same way as a frigate or Littoral Combat Ship masks some huge differences in how they can be used.

On the other hand, a significant part of rebalancing to Asia is about reassuring allies and indicating to China that this region will remain a priority even as the defense budget declines. As a rhetorical device the 60/40 balance is a clear symbol, serving the goals of deterrence and reassurance well enough that imprecision on the margins may be an affordable liability. Honing that signal may be on the Pentagon’s mind more than the math, budgetary or force structure, associated with this shift.

*Budget uncertainty exists on a number of fronts, but sequester is likely the most prominent. In 2013 the cut will be applied across the board, including within the shipbuilding and operations account. That will create some turbulence, but it will be temporary because, from 2014 onward, the Navy will be able to choose how to accommodate the sequester reduction. If that savings comes from shipbuilding or operations requirements associated with the pivot to Asia, that will be the Navy’s choice rather than a necessary impact of sequester.

Methodology Notes

Source: Navy Online Fact Files, as of March 6, 2013

Fielded fleets included in the Navy fact files but excluded from this analysis are Deep Submergence Rescue Vehicles; Large Scale Vehicle Cutthroat; the USS Constitution; Fast Sea Frame Sea Fighter; Landing Craft – Air Cushioned; Landing Craft, Mechanized and Utility; Patrol Coastal Ships; Mark V Special Operations Craft; Rigid Hull Inflatable Boats, Submarine Tenders; and Yard Patrol Craft.

Four Mine Countermeasures Ships are home ported in Bahrain. They are counted as “not Pacific.”

Photo Credit: Matthew Fern via Flickr


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