The Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments has finally released the much anticipated report on the U.S. Navy by Robert Work, considered by many as this country’s top naval analyst. Work gave a fantastic briefing this week on the state of the Navy and his recommendations for future shipbuilding. He provided a wealth of information in the briefing and in the report which I highly recommend. I’ll summarize some of the key points from his assessment of the current state of the fleet and potential threats and recommendations for Navy shipbuilding.
To begin with, Work says, the U.S. Navy is in far better condition than many believe. Alarmists who say U.S. naval power is in serious decline perform a rather dishonest counting of the current number of ships and compare that to the 1980s “600 ship Navy” standard. A more honest net assessment compares the size and combat power of the Navy to potential contemporary competitors, which paints a very different picture. Counting those ships that can “perform naval fire and maneuver,” including submarines and aviation platforms, the Navy has 203 warships. The Russian and Chinese navies combined operate 215 warships, so the U.S. has close to the “two navy standard” the Royal Navy aimed to maintain in its heyday. Measuring fleet tonnage displacement, the best proxy for measuring a fleet’s overall combat capability, the U.S. Navy enjoys a “13-Navy standard” over the world’s next biggest navies.
Because the U.S. Navy early on shifted to vertical launch magazines, it carries far more missiles, 7,804 in 75 warships, than any other navy, adding up to a “twenty-navy firepower standard.” The Navy enjoys a very high operational tempo that is unmatched by any other nation. The fleet is transforming to a “collaborative battle network” force that will integrate aerial and sea drones, satellites, seabed sensors into an unmatched command and control system. The Navy can also count on the naval power of its closest ally: the U.S. Coast Guard, with 160 cutters and 800 small craft, a force ideally suited for engaging partner navies. Then there are the 10 carrier air wings, naval special warfare units, P-8A Poseidon Multi-Mission aircraft, aerial drones and 569 MH-60 helicopters. The MH-60s are the “small craft” of the U.S. Navy, faster than any ship, able to patrol vast areas and armed with torpedoes or Hellfire missiles.
The Navy doesn’t need to worry about losing global maritime supremacy anytime soon, so Work says, the focus should be less about ship numbers and more on how the Navy fits into the national strategy and how to maintain naval dominance going forward in the face of technological advances in precision weapons and targeting. The biggest challenge the fleet will face in the future isn't that some nation (China) might build a blue water fleet to challenge the Navy on the open ocean, as that would play to our naval and air strengths. Rather, its what Work calls “land based maritime reconnaissance-strike complexes,” land based anti-ship missiles of ever greater range, accuracy, maneuverability and number. The idea of parking carriers offshore and launching sustained air strikes is no longer valid, or at least won’t be very soon. The key parameter in future wars, conducted both from the air and sea, will be range, Work says. The Navy must fight outside the range of an enemy’s anti-air and anti ships missiles, or at least outside the missile salvo fire range. Another evolving challenge is ever more sophisticated undersea combat systems, drones, sonar systems and advanced submarines.
As for shipbuilding, the Navy obviously faces some very tough choices. Work puts the cost of the Navy’s FY 2009 shipbuilding plan at around $26 billion. Nobody believes the Navy is going to get that much, especially in today’s economic environment. The best way for the Navy to reduce costs, Work says, is to exploit ships currently in production; reduce the number of different ship types; reduce crew sizes; and aggressively pursue improved network capabilities. But that will only get the service so far.
He laid out a shipbuilding plan for the next 30 years at roughly $20 billion a year. The future battle fleet he envisions will be better suited to engaging with partner navies at the lower ends of the conflict spectrum and defeat advanced maritime reconnaissance strike complexes and undersea combat networks at the high end. The major battleships in his future fleet include 12 SSBNs, 48 SSNs, 4 SSGNs (cruise missile and special operations transport submarines), 10 carriers, 80 large battle network combatants (guided missile carriers and destroyers), and 33 amphibious warfare ships.
To get there, he recommends:
• Immediately reduce SSBN fleet to 12 after completion of Ohio-class mid life cycle refueling. Authorize the next generation SSBN-X no later than FY 2019, and build it in conjunction with the British Royal Navy, which is also looking to recapitalize its strategic deterrent fleet.
• Increase build rate for Virginia-class SSNs to two per year no later than 2011, at an approximate cost of $2.6 billion per boat. Continue to upgrade the Virginia class in successive blocks.
• Convert two Ohio-class SSBNs into SSGNs at mid-life refueling.
• The Virginia class follow on, or SSN-X, should be a SSN/SSGC hybrid.
• Reduce carrier build rate from one every four years to one every five years, saving $565 million a year. Drop the number of active carriers from 11 to 10.
• Increase the carrier’s ability to fight from long range by adding two squadrons of F-35C, one Navy and one Marine, and accelerate development of a stealthy long range N-UCAS.
• Build no more than three DDG-1000s.
• Build 11 Arleigh Burkes between 2010 and 2017, first seven to replace the older Ticonderoga class CGs and the next four bring the surface fleet to 88 warships.
• Replace all 88 ships with 80 new modular next-generation Large Battle Network Combatants, a conventionally powered, sub $2.5 billion next generation warship.
• Replace frigates and minesweepers with LCS as planned.
• Instead of building six LCS per year and stopping at 55, build four per year and continue building indefinitely (slowing the build rate will potentially save $1.1 billion a year).
• Size the maneuver fleet to support the landing of two Marine Expeditionary Brigades, which requires 33 ships: 11 LHD/LHSs, 11 LPD-17s and 11 LSDs.
Work said even his shipbuilding plan is probably too costly, given economic realities. There is little question that the Navy will be forced to make trade-offs. Work advises the Navy take a hard look at carrier numbers, as they are enormously expensive. Clear guidance is needed on the SSBN-X program, which is estimated to cost $70 billion plus to build. The Navy and Congress must also quickly agree on the future of the DDG-1000 and DDG-51 programs, as continued confusion wastes money. The focus in the upcoming QDR should be less about total ship numbers and more about getting the right mix of capabilities. Thankfully, Work said, the Navy’s significant advantage over its nearest rivals gives it time to consider its course.