In May, Chief of Naval Operations Admiral John Richardson and acting Secretary of the Navy Sean Stackley appeared before a Senate Defense Appropriations Subcommittee hearing to discuss the recently unveiled fiscal year 2018 defense budget and its effects on the Navy. The news was not good about the state of the Navy and where the service is headed.
Despite campaign promises to rebuild the military from the twin disasters of sequestration and the 2011 Budget Control Act combined with nearly 16 years of combat deployments, the first Trump budget for the Navy does little to look to the future. This proposed budget only begins to fix the neglect of the past, placing more emphasis on getting the ships and submarines the repairs they desperately need.
The Navy has been in a long budgetary downward spiral since the Cold War ended. Back then, the Navy had just over 500 ships. Since then the fleet has dropped to 275 ships. And the number of ships that are available to deploy in a combat ready status has dropped to embarrassing lows, putting into question its ability to perform its central missions without further straining material and crews. Shipboard maintenance has been backlogged and ships that should be out to sea are instead sitting pierside, making the 275-ship number much, much smaller in an operational sense.
According to Stackley, the primary goal of this budget is to fix the lack of spare parts and attempt to get a handle on the lagging maintenance issues which have kept ships in the yard much longer than planned, rather than solving the complicated problems of how to grow the fleet not only in numbers but in capability. By getting the ships out of the yard and back to the fleet the Navy is “actually” increasing the size of the current fleet by having more ships available for duty.
When candidate Trump pledged to expand the U.S. Navy to 350 ships it was expected he would at least try to move in that direction. Instead, the budget he put forth does nothing to take the Navy beyond the 308-ship target set by the Obama administration in 2012. Eight ships have been requested this year: an aircraft carrier, two submarines, two destroyers, one littoral combat ship (LCS) and two auxiliaries. Hardly the meteoric expansion promised.
While the idea of promising a 350-ship Navy may grab headlines and votes, the reality of the Navy landing on that number of ships anytime soon is almost impossible. Yet a 350-ship fleet is a necessity if the U.S. desires to maintain its naval advantage.
The United States is a naval power and has been since World War II. America depends on the sea for commerce as a nation with 53 percent of imports and 38 percent of exports delivered by sea and with global security interests as well that demand a need for a strong Navy—one that can deploy when it is required to and not be tied pierside as it chokes to death on a maintenance backlog. Many thought after the Cold War ended that the security challenges would greatly diminish, but that has not been the case at all.
The challenges are more numerous and more complex. China is asserting its growing strength in the South China Sea and will have to be confronted at some point. Russia is slowly trying to rebuild its naval force, and while it can’t operate globally anymore, it must be taken seriously for what it is. Strategic waterways are becoming more crowded and important and will need to be defended by a strong navy.
No longer can America afford to inadequately fund the Navy unless there is an equal desire to watch the further erosion of the Navy’s global reach.
Last December, the Navy issued its 2016 Force Structure Assessment, which called for a future ship strength of 355 ships—an increase from the 2012 assessment which called for a 308-ship fleet. To reach 355, according to the report, the Navy would be required to double its current annual budget, which is essentially unrealistic in both current and expected future fiscal environments.”
Which means it’s never going to happen, no matter what anyone says or promises to do.
The Congressional Budget Office released a report titled ‘Costs of Building a 355-Ship Navy’ on April 24 that addressed the reality of what it would take to reach this target number. The report states:
“The earliest the Navy could achieve its goal of a 355-ship objective would be in 2035, or in about 18 years, provided that it received sufficient funding….CBO estimates that, over the next 30 years, meeting the 355-ship objective would cost the Navy an average of about $26.6 billion annually for ship construction, which is more than 60 percent above the average amount the Congress has appropriated for that purpose over the past 30 years and 40 percent more than the amount appropriated for 2016….To establish a 355-ship fleet, the Navy would need to purchase around 329 new ships over 30 years.”
The CBO report also gets into the costs above and beyond the price of the ships themselves. Don’t forget, more ships mean more helicopters and aircraft to fly from them, more unmanned systems to support them and more weapons to arm them. And more personnel to train and pay, more sailors and civilians to train the larger force requirement, more fuel and supplies to operate the additional ships not to mention the increased maintenance budgets needed to keep the ships combat ready. It is not a cheap proposition.
The CBO estimates that the annual cost of operating a 355-ship fleet would be $94 billion. Today, the 245-ship fleet costs $56 billion. Where will an extra $38 billion come from?
And it’s not just the lack of money that is a problem; it is the lack of an adequate industrial base to build the new influx of ship orders. After years of making less than 10 ships per year it cannot be expected to see a rapid increase in the number of ships under construction at one time.
No magic wand or bucket of cash will change this overnight. Building aircraft carriers and submarines requires a skilled labor force and while the shipyards today are designed to handle the current level it will take years to acquire and train the additional shipbuilders. And that process can’t even begin to start until there are more ship orders.
Another potential issue is the granting of security clearances to workers who will build the growing fleet. Reuters reported that many union members are unable to obtain the required clearances, especially as far as submarine construction is concerned. In fact, General Dynamics Electric Boat begun developing its own grass roots campaign to secure future workers. Partnering with local schools in Connecticut and Rhode Island, Electric Boat is hoping to train its future submarine workers before they even are hired.
As the Navy struggles with putting ships to sea, three critical areas exist. They are the future of the submarine fleet, the Navy’s aging cruisers and what to replace them with, and the need for a true small surface combatant.
On its books, the Navy has 52 fast-attack submarines (SSNs) and a requirement for only 48 according to the 2012 FSA. So, the Navy is four boats ahead and should easily be meeting the needs for Navy submarines worldwide. That is not the truth, however.
One report suggests the attack submarine fleet is only meeting 40 to 45 percent of combatant commanders’ needs and with the aging fleet of Los Angeles-class not being replaced as quickly as needed the fleet is expected to fall to 41 submarines by 2029.
That number is below the 2012 assessment’s requirement of 48 and well below the 2016 version which calls for 66. The SSN was partially bolstered by the conversion of four Ohio-class SSBNs that were converted to cruise missile submarines but even those hulls are to be out of service by 2028.
The Navy is expected to continue to buy two Virginia-class attack subs per year for the foreseeable future even with construction looming for the Columbia-class ballistic missile submarine. Initially, it was expected that construction of future Virginia-class boats would drop to one per year as Stackley explained during the appropriations hearing:
“In the past we had anticipated dropping down our submarine construction, our attack submarine construction, during years of the Columbia program procurement. In fact, we intend to, and we’re laying the groundwork, to sustain two submarine per year procurement rate – because that is our number one shortfall.”
It’s not only about getting new attack submarines. It’s about keeping those in the fleet seaworthy, and making sure trips to the shipyard are completed correctly and in a timely manner.
For instance, USS Boise has been sitting pierside at Norfolk Naval Base for 47 months—yes, almost four years!—because it has lost its dive certification. This means the submarine cannot submerge and that is a fundamental problem. Work to begin to repair Boise is not even slated to begin until January 2019 so the SSN has six more months tied to the pier. Boise is not alone however. Connecticut and Albany, two fast attack submarines, also had extended absences from the fleet. In each case, the maintenance period was expected to take approximately 24 months. Instead, it took four years for each submarine to return to the service.
The problem is only going to get worse as the backlog at
U.S Navy shipyards keep growing and SSNs continue to receive lowest priority at those shipyards.
Currently the Navy has 22 Ticonderoga-class cruisers in its inventory. Easily the most powerful surface combatant the Navy possesses, the type introduced the AEGIS combat system to the world when the first ship of the class was commissioned in 1983.
Since then AEGIS has been the gold standard in fleet air defense and now forms an integral part of the nation’s ballistic missile defense. The first five ships of the class have all been decommissioned as the earliest Ticonderogas had older guided missile launchers rather than the current ones.
The youngest cruiser in the fleet is USS Port Royal, commissioned on July 4, 1994. With a projected 35-year service life that the Navy hopes to possibly extend for the final 11 cruisers built to 40 years, the Navy cruisers are closer to the end than the beginning—and with no replacement in sight.
Later this year, USS Bunker Hill will deploy to the Pacific on what will be its final mission. The cruiser was the first Ticonderoga built with VLS and the Navy will decommission it in 2019, closely followed by a second cruiser, USS Mobile Bay.
A huge problem for the Navy with the Ticonderoga-class was that of the current 22 ships they were all commissioned during an eight year window between late 1986 and 1994. This means that the ships will all be approaching the end of their service lives together and therefore will all need to be replaced together.
The Navy has tried to replace the Ticonderogas, but balked at the price when it was estimated to at $6 billion per copy. The Navy has done what it can to upgrade and make the cruisers available for service.
In early 2015, the Navy adopted a plan put forth by Congress to modernize its cruisers with what was called the 2/4/6 plan. This means that no more than two cruisers per year can go into extended modernization periods, those modernizations can take no longer than four years, and no more than six cruisers can be undergoing the modernization at the same time.
The oldest 11 cruisers have already received upgrades yet are quickly sailing towards the end of their designed lifespan. As the Navy looks to modernize the remaining 11 Ticonderoga cruisers, it more importantly needs to be looking for a fiscally appropriate replacement.
By any measurement, the Littoral Combat Ship has been a failure. With a series of well-publicized mechanical failures the LCS has fallen well short of its lofty predictions. The Navy wanted a multi-mission ship that could be tasked with one mission, return to port, and be quickly outfitted with a different warfighting module and dash off to the next hotspot ready for action.
Unfortunately, the mission modules never worked and the ships themselves are less than inspiring though the Navy did its best blame the crews for the breakdowns by issuing orders for the LCS crews to be retrained.
Originally designed to replace the ships of three classes (Perry-class frigates, Osprey-class coastal mine hunting ships and Avenger-class mine countermeasure ships) the LCS program has flopped harder than a fish on land. It has been mockingly labeled the “Little Crappy Ship” and “Little Chance of Survival” due to its deficient performance and its inability to survive an attack from even a semi-determined foe.
As a result, the Navy is finally looking to terminate production at 30 ships, though what the eventual purpose of those ships will be is open for debate. Moving forward the Navy has decided to develop a new frigate to fulfill the small surface combatant mission.
An award for design and construction contract will not even be issued until FY 2020 to allow the Navy appropriate time to evaluate what the new frigate will need as far as mission capability and integration into the fleet defense structure known as Naval Fire Control-Counter Air (NIFC-CA).
At this point, the main purpose of buying the LCS from shipyards in Wisconsin and Alabama is about keeping the industrial base ready and prepared to begin building the future frigate. Reports surfaced days after Trump’s budget request that the administration was going to ask for two LCS ships rather than the one included in the FY 18 budget. This “budget errata” is highly unusual, but illustrates the desire to keep the shipyards working until a replacement comes along. Now, the only trick is to find the extra $600 million it will take to build the second LCS now added to the budget.
In the Navy, standing watch is the essential mission of each sailor. One of the most essential elements to that duty is the saying “Not on my watch”, meaning those with vigilance will provide security for the rest of the crew, providing a warning of a threat so that the threat can be met.
Yet under a lot of people’s watches, the Navy has fallen hard. Three successive administrations—Clinton, Bush, and Obama—didn’t prioritize resources in a way that kept the Navy properly funded and a pillar of strength. One political party is not to blame—this is a bi-partisan collapse of responsibility and abject ignorance across 25 years.
America’s future naval force is now an asterisk of what should have been. It is not too late to turn the tide and change course, but Congress, the Navy and the president cannot keep kicking the can down the road to be perpetually somebody else’s problem.
The problem is here today and will only become more challenging the longer it is ignored. The sailor on watch deserves better.
Gary Wetzel is an experienced military and aviation writer who has authored two books examining the combat operations of the A-10 Warthog in Afghanistan. He also served over six years in the U.S Navy as sonar technician aboard USS Philadelphia and USS Dallas.