According to two top officials, the Navy is operating at an “unsustainable” pace for its current force structure. At a House Armed Services Committee hearing recently, Vice Admirals William Burke and Kevin McCoy described a force that was falling into disrepair and struggling to cover ever-increasing responsibilities with decreasing manpower and money.

The Navy’s maintenance issues began in the 1990s when Washington sought a post–Cold War peace dividend. One of the first casualties was manpower, and that led to smaller Navy maintenance crews.

At first, the Navy tried to get by, deferring maintenance and patching up old equipment. But the sustained high operational tempo of the past decade has finally caught up with all of the services. In 2011, nearly 22 percent of the Navy’s fleet failed its yearly inspection, up from 8 percent as recently as 2007. Stretched thin by increased responsibilities such as wartime deployments, anti-piracy operations, and disaster relief, the Navy is trying to get by with broken equipment and often lacks the spare parts to make at-sea repairs.

While Admiral Burke stated that decreased ship readiness has not yet forced commanders to skip missions because of fewer available ships, the future he paints is not bright. With an increased mission set–from operations in the Persian Gulf, to disaster relief in Haiti and Japan, and maneuvers off the coast of Libya–the Navy’s ships are seeing less time in dry dock for repairs and more time underway on the high seas. Less time in dry dock means that the periodic full-scale repairs that ships need in order to stay active get pushed further and further to the right.  Without full-scale repairs, ships break down more rapidly than designed and the Navy will be faced with the expensive prospect of buying new ships ahead of schedule.

In his testimony, Admiral Burke stated that combatant commanders generally require 16 to 18 operational attack submarines to meet regional objectives. Due to an in insufficient inventory, however, the Navy can provide only 10 submarines at any given time, exposing a serious gap between resources and requirements. U.S. attack submarines serve a critical role in establishing sea control and supremacy. Their unique capabilities make these submarines force multipliers, allowing them to “punch above their weight.” To protect U.S. interests in East Asia and the Pacific, and to support and reassure U.S. allies, the U.S. must halt and then reverse the decline of its submarine fleet as a critical component of a broader policy to maintain the military balance in the Pacific.

Unfortunately, the submarine shortfall is only a harbinger of what may be to come if the Navy does not increase procurement in order to meet global commitments while ensuring forces undergo scheduled repairs to meet program expected lifecycles.

Increased operations and shrinking inventory is shortening the life cycle of ships while ballooning maintenance costs. The stress inflicted on the Navy is undermining its capabilities and casting doubt on America’s resolve to maintain global reach. The outlook is not any better in the future, either. According to House Armed Services Readiness Subcommittee Chairman Randy Forbes (R–VA), the President’s 2012 budget request underfunds Navy maintenance accounts by $815 million.

A blue water navy underpins America’s status as a great power, but it is a force that is falling into disrepair. If strategists are right and the 21st century is the Pacific Century, a capable and ready Navy will be more important than ever before. In fact, it may even be the difference between steady American power and deep and irreversible decline. Even in a time of serious budget crunching, America owes it to itself to reverse the hollowing of the Navy and maintain its position as the greatest in the world.