The US Navy is floundering in a big way. Now, sailors are beginning to share their stories as the extent of the crisis is revealed.

"IT'S only a matter of time before something horrible happens."

These were the ominous warnings of a shipmate taken in a survey on US Navy cruiser Shiloh in a desperate bid to be heard.

Another described it as a "floating prison".

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"I just pray we never have to shoot down a missile from North Korea," a distraught sailor lamented, "because then our ineffectiveness will really show."

According to the Navy Times, "these comments are not unique".

As the desperate search for three missing American sailors lost at sea ended Friday afternoon, whispers surrounding the United States' military strength suggest a worrying decline in competency from both sea and air.

The crash of the navy aircraft near Okinawa, Japan, last week, was the fifth accident this year alone for the United States' largest overseas fleet, the Seventh Fleet.

It has 50 to 70 ships and submarines, 140 aircraft and about 20,000 sailors.

It works with South Korea to watch for North Korean strikes, but it is also circles the South China Sea, where China is building man-made islands and deploying new ships and planes.

Then there is India, clawing to find a way into the battle, and notorious Russia. Port calls to allies in Australia also maintain an American presence with one of its closest allies.

In August, news.com.au highlighted a series of recent tragedies that forced the Navy to dismiss the commander of its seventh fleet amid questions about the future of American operations in the Pacific.

Yet an eye-opening internal report released earlier this month, described as "one of the most remarkable US Navy documents in recent memory", said the fleet was forced to make cuts to maintain schedule.

"The risks that were taken in the Western Pacific accumulated over time, and did so insidiously," the report said.

"The dynamic environment normalised to the point where individuals and groups of individuals could no longer recognise that the processes in place to identify and assess readiness were no longer working at the ship and headquarters level."

Seven sailors died and several were injured in June when the destroyer USS Fitzgerald collided with a container ship south of Tokyo. The sight of the damaged boats, with gaping holes in their hulls, left a stain on America's supposed strength at sea. If a commercial ship could cause so much damage, what could the US's enemies do?

"They were either incredibly complacent or sloppy beyond description," Carl Schuster, a Hawaii Pacific University professor who spent 10 years "driving" US warships, told CNN.

In August, the destroyer USS John McCain hit an oil tanker near Singapore, injuring five sailors and killing 10 others. The ship's top two officers were relieved of duty at the time.

The head of the Seventh Fleet, Vice Admiral Joseph P Aucoin, was also removed due to the accidents, which a Navy investigation found were "avoidable".

At the time, outgoing Vice Adm Aucoin said the navy would carry out a "deliberate reset" of all its ships in the Pacific, focused on navigation, mechanical systems and bridge resource management. It would include training and an expert assessment of each ship.
Months later, the future looks even bleaker.

Over the past three decades alone, the Navy's fleet has shrunk from almost 600 ships to 308 today. It included nearly 1200 aircraft and more than 130,000 sailors and civilians.

While campaigning for the presidency, Donald Trump promised to expand the fleet by building more ships and increasing the number of aircraft carriers to 12, but his first budget actually proposed cuts to funding for shipbuilding.

"Behind the dramatic show of force, questions are emerging as to whether the US Navy is up to the challenges it faces in the Pacific — from both a nuclear-armed North Korea and a strengthening China — at a time when its top leaders acknowledge it lacks the money, manpower and weapons to ensure success," CNN reported.

While the US Navy's operations overseas are growing considerably, it has been forced to navigate through some serious accidents while showing brute force to its enemies.

When he appeared before the House Armed Services Committee to address the crisis, the Navy's No. 2 officer, naval operations vice chief Admiral William Moran said the Navy was being pushed to its limits.

"We continue to have a supply-and-demand problem, which is placing a heavy strain on the force," he said.

"All of these things culminate with this notion we aren't big enough to do everything we're being tasked to do. And our culture is, 'we're going to get it done', because that's what the Navy is all about. And sometimes our culture works against us."

Even one the US Navy's most respected members, Senator John McCain, who is chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, admits there are problems.

"The reality remains that our Navy is underfunded, overtasked, and too small," he told CNN.

The task the US Navy must face is now is how to expand its fleet while maintaining its current one — no mean feat for what is supposed to be the world's strongest.

CNN reports "maintenance delays are currently sidelining 11 Navy ships" while a report from the Government Accountability Office in September cited "inadequate facilities and equipment led to maintenance delays that contributed in part to more than 1300 lost operational days — days when ships were unavailable for operations — for aircraft carriers and 12,500 lost operational days for submarines".

The report, entitled Naval Shipyards: Actions Needed to Improve Poor Conditions that Affect Operations, estimated the Navy "will be unable to conduct 73 of 218 maintenance periods over the next 23 fiscal years due to insufficient capacity and other deficiencies".

The jaw-dropping report estimated it would take a whopping 19 years to clear its $4.68 billion backlog of restoration and maintenance projects.

"The current math won't work," Randy Forbes, a former US politician who served as chairman of the House Seapower and Projection Forces subcommittee, told CNN.

"It's going to take an overall rebuilding of the Navy to meet the challenges around the globe."