The 600 Ship Navy
was a strategic
plan of the United States Navy
during the 1980s to rebuild its fleet after cutbacks that followed the end of the Vietnam War
. The plan, which originated with Republican
leaders, was an important campaign plank
of Ronald Reagan
in the 1980 presidential election
, who advocated a larger military and strategic confrontation with the Soviet Union
The program included:
- Recommissioning the Iowa-class battleships.
- Keeping older ships in service longer.
- A large new construction program.
The idea was supported by John F. Lehman who became Reagan's Secretary of the Navy, and Caspar Weinberger, Reagan's Secretary of Defense.
The idea behind the 600-ship navy can be traced back to the Vietnam War
. During the war, as is often the case during times of war, the four main branches of the armed service — Army
, and Air Forces
— rapidly expanded to meet the demands placed on them.
With the end of the Vietnam War, the American government reduced military spending. By 1978 Admiral James L. Holloway III concluded that the United States Navy had a very slim margin over its Soviet counterpart. The Soviet Union, which had been supporting North Vietnam, began staging their naval vessels from former U.S. ports in South Vietnam. Building on this gain, Soviet vessels began to sail in all seven seas with increased vigor, and even ventured into the Gulf of Mexico. Soviet forces also stepped up infantry, armor and air force deployments in Eastern Europe.
Finally, in 1979, the takeover of a U.S. embassy in the Iran hostage crisis, and the failure of a rescue mission in Operation Eagle Claw, heightened the sense that American military power was becoming more limited.
It was against this backdrop in 1980 that the United States began an election year. Ronald Reagan
, a Republican
, ran the presidential race on a platform that included improving the armed services, which appealed to then-current American fears regarding Soviet military power. He continued this in 1984, releasing a campaign commercial, A bear in the woods
, which played on the use of the bear as a national symbol of Russia
, asked the rhetorical question, "Isn't it smart to be as strong as the bear?"
Under the programs put forth by Reagan, the overseas strategic retaliation arm was strengthened and the development of new weaponry like the B-1B bomber, the Bradley fighting vehicle, and the Abrams tank was completed and they were put into production.
Ships and weapons systems deployed during the plan era
The Navy saw the largest benefit of the rebuilding. Under the Reagan Administration
, the first of the Ohio-class ballistic missile submarines
was completed. Construction of the Nimitz class
and Los Angeles-class attack submarines
was dramatically stepped up. The revolutionary new Aegis combat system
was installed on the up-and-coming Ticonderoga-class
ships, production of which was also stepped up. Several aircraft carriers were put through Service Life Extension Programs (SLEPs
) aimed at keeping them in service longer. The old but still useful Iowa-class battleships
, which had the benefit of armour plate impervious to the Exocet
type weapons that had proved effective in the Falklands War
, were all recommissioned and refitted with RGM-84 Harpoon
, BGM-109 Tomahawk
, and Phalanx CIWS
system capabilities. The first Harpoons, Tomahawks, and AGM-88 HARM missiles
all debuted on the navy's ships. Naval aviation was stepped up with the introduction of the F/A-18 Hornet
, along with improved versions of the EA-6 Prowler
electronic countermeasure aircraft, the A-6 Intruder
and the F-14 Tomcat
Watkins and Lehman, who were skilled at public relations, sold the United States and Congress on the necessity of having a "600-Ship Navy". While many of the increases would not reach their full deployment, by 1990 the United States Navy was by far the largest in the world, with 15 carrier battle groups, 4 battleship surface action groups, and over 100 attack submarines.
End of the plan
Eventually political pressure to reduce the national budget deficit
resulted in Congress reversing itself and passing a series of declining defense budgets beginning in 1986. Weinberger clashed with Congress over the cuts, resigning in late 1987, and was succeeded by the more pragmatic Frank Carlucci
. Lehman's successor as Navy Secretary, James H. Webb
, remained a fierce proponent of the expanded fleet, and disagreed with Carlucci over how to cut the Navy budget in line with other services. Webb resigned rather than endorse Carlucci's cut of 16 frigates
. As revealed in The Reagan Diaries
, Reagan reflected about Webb's resignation on February 22, 1988: "Present Sec. Webb resigned over budget cuts. I don't think Navy was sorry to see him go."
Following the collapse of the Soviet Union in the early 1990s and the lack of a perceived threat against the United States, several of the Reagan Administration's policies and plans, such as the "600 Ship Navy", were scaled back or abandoned. U.S. bases across Europe and the United States were slowly decommissioned and closed, others were mothballed. In the Navy, this resulted in the retirement of several older carriers, the decommissioning of all four of the Iowa-class battleships and the cancellation of the remaining Seawolf-class submarines.
- W. J. Holland, The Navy, Naval Historical Foundation, Washington, D.C., ©2000. ISBN 0-7607-6218-X