Navy Surface Force in Deep Trouble

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The Obama administration, looking for potential budget cuts, may take aim at the trouble-plagued Navy surface ship programs. As well documented, the San Antonio (LPD 17) amphibious ships and littoral combat ships (LCS) are far behind schedule and over cost. Indeed, the San Antonio herself took almost three years from when the Navy placed her in commission until she was ready to undertake her first overseas deployment -- probably a record for Navy surface ships.

Meanwhile, after some ten years and many millions of dollars in development, the Chief of Naval Operations, Admiral Gary Roughead has truncated the Zumwalt (DDG 1000) advanced destroyer program -- and undoubtedly wishes to cancel even the three ships already funded by Congress. Rather, Roughead wants to restart construction of the  Arleigh Burke (DDG 51) class destroyers -- a design that dates to 1979. Significantly, the two previous CNOs both strongly supported the DDG 1000 while saying that the Navy did not need any DDG 51s beyond the 62 ships built and under construction.

Similarly, the Navy has periodically announced plans to cease further construction of LPD 17 amphibious ships, knowing that Congress would still fund the ships because of Marine Corps support for them.

These machinations have led Missouri Representative Ike Skelton, the Democratic chairman of the House Armed Services Committee, earlier this month to say that the Navy must make a final decision this year about how many and what kind of surface ships it wants to build. Skelton told the American Shipbuilding Association that he did not know yet what the administration's Fiscal Year 2010 shipbuilding request would include, but that the Navy could not afford to wait longer before settling on a course for what warships it wants to build.

"The debate about the future surface Navy needs to end this year. A decision needs to be made. After a decision is made that both the Department [of the Navy] and the Congress can support, we need to fund the surface construction program at the level necessary to restore our fleet," Skelton said. "Whether that number is 313 ships or 340 ships, we need to get there."

Meanwhile, the carrier and submarine shipbuilding programs are relatively settled -- and eating up large chunks of the relatively finite shipbuilding budget. With an estimated FY 2010 budget of $10 to $12 billion -- at most -- the Navy is now building two attack submarines (SSN) per year for a total cost of almost $5 billion in today's dollars. The next nuclear-propelled aircraft carrier, the Gerald Ford (CVN 78), is expected by non-Navy sources to cost some $10 to $12 billion. Although the "flattop" is being funded over several years, such high-cost programs will leave minimal funding for surface combatants -- cruisers, destroyers, and the littoral combat ships plus amphibious ships and fleet auxiliaries.

Today the Navy has some 280 ships in service against an oft-stated requirement of a minimum of 313 ships. To build up to 313 ships the Navy should be building some 10 to 12 ships per year -- at an annual cost of more than $20 billion, clearly a "cost too far."

Addressing the problem, Representative Skelton said, "We would like the Navy to do what the Navy keeps saying makes the most sense: build affordable ships which leverage on commonality with other ship programs, and build them in numbers that allow for economies of purchase and investment in infrastructure."

U.S. sea power today is "on a bad glide slope," he added.

The Obama administration is looking at a military establishment that is fighting difficult and, in realty, open-ended conflicts in Afghanistan and Iraq.  Although the president has said that he plans to withdraw all U.S. "combat troops" from Iraq in a little over a year, that will leave some 40,000 or (more likely) more "support and security" troops in country.  Add in the U.S. training, advisory, and counter-insurgency operations in Africa and other areas, and the perceived "strategic" threats from China, North Korea, Iran, and Russia, conventional naval forces appear to have a very limited role in the future. (The more significant exception would be the planned ballistic missile defense ships -- now designated CG(X) or, with nuclear propulsion, CG(X)N.)

But looking into the future, with the continued loss of overseas bases, naval ships take on increased significance. This was evident when, without nearby bases, aircraft carriers and amphibious ships were the means of providing tactical support for the initial operations in Afghanistan. Similarly, the inability to fly most combat sorties from Saudi bases in the spring of 2003 again saw the need for naval forces for the invasion of Iraq.

If the United States does have a future confrontation -- not conflict -- with China it will most likely be over resources in Africa and South America.  Similarly, Russian support for Venezuela's regime and interests in other areas for political and economic reasons add to the probability of crises in remote areas.  And, it will be ships, carrying aircraft and embarking Marines and other troops, which will provide the U.S. president with political and military options in those areas. 

The Navy's leadership -- military and civilian -- must develop a reasonable and affordable program that will be saleable to Congress. As important, the program must be articulated properly so that all "players" understand the future importance of naval forces in this uncertain era.

-- Norman Polmar

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