Shipbuilding Program is a Mess

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The Navy's shipbuilding program is a mess. That was the consensus of several highly qualified speakers at a recent Washington seminar sponsored by the Hudson Institute. And, it was agreed, the current Navy and congressional efforts will not rectify the situation.

The fiscal year 2010 program recently presented to Congress calls for $14.9 billion in shipbuilding funds for eight ships:

1 SSN attack submarine1 DDG Arleigh Burke-class destroyer (a restart of that program)3 LCS littoral combat ships2 T-AKE replenishment ships1 HSV high-speed vessel

With a planned average ship service life of 30 years, this building rate would sustain a fleet of 240 ships. This is less than the Navy's current 283 ships and far short of the long-standing Navy "requirement" for 313 ships.

The distinguished speakers at the Hudson conference on 22 May made it clear that without a massive increase in shipbuilding funds a larger fleet was not achievable. Dr. Eric Labs, senior naval analyst at the Congressional Budget Office said that about $25 billion per year for new ships is needed to reach the Navy's goal.

Now is the time for "hard choices," Labs said. We "cannot fix problems with simple measures."  He observed that the ship procurement dollars being discussed do not include a new class of ballistic missile defense cruisers, and "it is not unreasonable" for those ships -- now designated CG(X) or, if nuclear propelled, CG(X)N, to cost $6 to $7 billion per ship.

Former Secretary of the Navy John Lehman, under whose direction the U.S. fleet had reached almost 600 ships in the 1980s, outlined a "new look" for the Navy (which will be discussed in a future commentary). With respect to shipbuilding problems, Lehman blamed the constant bureaucratic growth of the Defense Department, including the Naval Sea Systems Command, and the lack of "line decision makers" -- people who have the authority and responsibility to make key decisions. Only then can the continual flow of changes be made in ship requirements and construction be halted.

Lehman called for "freezing" designs and making only "block" changes in new construction programs.

Congressman Joe Sestak, a retired vice admiral, believes that the Navy could carry out its missions with a 240- to 260-ship fleet if "we bought cyberspace." Calling for the development of methods for tracking every surface ship -- both military and commercial, an expansion of the Automated Identification System (AIS) now used for large merchant ships -- and for the continuous location of submarines, he said that such information could reduce the U.S. Navy's ship requirements. 

Still, "owning" cyberspace would be expensive. And, the only way to undertake such an achievement would be to remove "cyber war" operations from the service budgets and consolidate the effort under a Department of Defense executive, according to Sestak. 

A consensus of the presentations and the questions and comments from the audience included the following points:

The Navy's flip-flops on the Zumwalt (DDG 1000) and Burke (DDG 51) programs have hurt the Navy's image and credibility of its shipbuilding program. The Navy's 30-year shipbuilding plan, required by Congress, is unrealistic and of little value. Poor management of the Navy's shipbuilding efforts have resulted in ship delays and cost overruns The Navy has failed to effectively "sell" itself as a key factor in America's political-military effectiveness, in part because of the above factors Ship numbers do count and the controversial littoral combat ship (LCS) is the Navy's only hope for increasing fleet size. The Navy's leadership can fix the procurement mess, but must take bold and innovative action, including demanding firm fixed-price contracts and the use of second-tier shipyards and contractors to spark competition.

-- Norman Polmar

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