US Navy: no more 'margin of comfort'

I am extremely proud of what our naval forces are doing around the world today, stretched over a broader range of geography than at any time since the end of World War II, as they protect our country's vital concerns in many distant areas of the world.

We have a far better navy today than we did three years ago -- the end product of wise investment decisions made almost a decade ago, and supported by successive congresses. Our forces today are modern and sophisticated, embodying some of the most advanced technology American industry is capable of producing -- in some cases representing order of magnitude improvements over the generations they replace. That technological trend is very positive, and must continue.

However, . . . we must carefully avoid looking at improved capability in an absolutem sense. The capability of our ships and aircraft is only meaningful when related:

* To commitmentsm -- what is expected of us;

* To the Soviets,m and how well theym are coming along;

* And to the readinessm of our forces to be employed in conflict and limited contingencies; that is, how well those forces are manned, maintained, and supplied with weapons so that they have the vital quality of sustainability -- the ability to operate for protracted periods at high tempos of combat while retaining their effectiveness. Given the fact that we are outnumbered by the Soviets -- and will remain so --of our ships and aircraft, and that is what readiness is really all about.

In the naval area today your country is overexposed and underinsured. Our margin of comfort is totally gone. We are operating at the ragged edge of adequacy when it comes to our globally disposed naval forces. We have been able to manage only because our forces have not been subjected to the added stress of combat anywhere in the world. Were contingency requirements superimposed on the equation, we would clearly have to reassess our priorities, and forgo our presence in some areas that we now consider essential.

But the positive side of the story is that -- the great pressures on our forces notwithstanding -- Navy people today are rising to the challenge and performing in a magnificent way to provide the country the kind of flexible, versatile military power it requires in these far-flung parts of the globe. The Indian Ocean offers a prime example of the way your Navy men and women are performing today -- with great distinction, under the most demanding of operating conditions, and for unprecendented periods at sea without relief of port visits.

In summary, our naval forces are covering all the geography that matters today, but not in numbers that give us the degree of confidence we would like, and at a high cost in terms of wear and tear on our people and material. I see nothing downstream that promises significant relief from the commitments we are now experiencing. If anything, the trends are in the opposite direction.

While I am pleased with the high quality of ships, aircraft and weapons entering the fleet, my enthusiasm is notably tempered by the pace of modernization displayed by the Soviets. On a comparative basis I would have to say that while we had a very good year in 1980, the Russians had a spectacular one.

For the past two years I have informed this committee that I judged our Navy to have a slim edge over the Soviets and that I was very uncomfortable with the margin of insurance we were buying in a time of many uncertainties. The trends were clearly adverse, I reported, and portended the certain loss of our narrow margin within the foreseeable future unless a substantial increase in naval investment was undertaken.

This year I have very carefully reassessed the state of the naval balance in consultation with my senior operational commanders. The judgments that emerged from that process have led me to conclude that it would be misleading to continue speaking of a "narrow margin" when, in fact, we have entered a period in which any reasonable estimate of the balance falls within the range of uncertainty. In other words, the situation today is so murky one cannot, with confidence, state that the US possesses a margin of superiority. If we do, it is as cloudy and tenuous as to be unreliable -- both as a deterrent, and as assurance of our ability to prevail at sea in a conflict with the Soviets.

So I have concluded that continued focus on the "thin margin" serves little practical purpose, and risks misleading by suggesting that we are indeed capable of measuring the balance with fine-tuned precision when, in fact, my own experience tells me that is not the case. That is not to say that the Sovietsm have acquired a significant margin of maritime superiority. I do not believe they have; but I do believe that they are well on the road to that status, and that they will achieve it in the middle years of this decade unless the trends . . . are moderated by a significant increase in naval investment by this country.

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