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The U.S. Navy Has a Problem: The 30-Year Shipbuilding Program is Not Enough

US Navy
GULF OF ADEN (May 17, 2016) Members of the visit, board, search and seizure (VBSS) team operate a rigid-hull inflatable boat (RHIB) alongside guided-missile destroyer USS Gonzalez (DDG 66). Gonzalez is currently operating with the Boxer Amphibious Ready Group in support of maritime security operations and theater security cooperation efforts in the U.S. 5th Fleet area of operations.

The U.S. Navy Shipbuilding Plan Is Not Adequate: Chief of Naval Operations (CNO) Admiral Mike Gilday is facing a challenging budget environment this year as he seeks to retire older and less capable ships while trying to make the force “more lethal” and eventually grow to 355 manned and unmanned ships. In addition to these goals, the Navy must also pay the cost for the Columbia class ballistic missile submarine (SSBN), a platform whose initial cost exceeds $15 billion. To meet this major cost and others, the Navy is prioritizing the readiness of the existing force over new construction to prepare the existing fleet for combat against peer adversaries. This means training their crews, filling their fuel tanks, arming them with the ordnance they need to do their jobs and above all the maintenance to keep them deployed and ready to fight.

The service is basing its arguments on the capability of individual and collective formations of ships to make this case, suggesting that some like the aging CG-47 class cruisers and problematic ships in the Littoral Combat Ship (LCS) ranks cost more to keep in service than what they are currently worth in combat. Admiral Gilday has noted however that current defense budget options do not allow the service to reach three hundred ships by 2035 and 367 ships by 2052.

Given the current threat, the fleet is not growing fast enough to meet the potential challenge of fighting two major wars against peer competitors like China and Russia as well as regional powers like North Korea and Iran.

The Navy’s stance on decommissioning, however, has been rebutted by some members of Congress asking for a detailed explanation of why these ships must be retired and in general what the service will do with its assets in both peace and war. Normally the 30-year shipbuilding program that tells members what ships will be built, when they will enter service and when they will retire suffices to explain the Navy to Congress…but not this year. That document that has been a regular feature of Navy presentations to the Hill since 2002 when Congress mandated its regular submission as part of the navy budget. This document has effectively functioned as the de facto navy strategy document for two decades but is no longer enough by itself to justify and explain the navy’s larger role in national security. Something else is needed to help the maritime service make its case.

That “something else” is an operational Maritime Strategy, such as the documents created by the CNO’s staff in the 1980’s and supported by Navy Secretary John Lehman. The 1980’s Maritime Strategies (there were several versions) were supported by and in turn themselves supported the 600-ship navy, a fleet force structure developed over the 1970’s as an affordable fleet that could contest sea control and project power against the Soviet Navy and its homeland in the Atlantic and Pacific oceans, as well as the Mediterranean Sea. That fleet size was too small to also contest the Indian Ocean and Persian Gulf areas, but the Navy was very candid with Congress on the risk associated with a smaller force. The combination of global strategy for fleet employment, combined with an affordable fleet force structure maintainable over time was the steady drumbeat of Navy leadership appearances on Capitol Hill with Secretary Lehman and CNO’s Admirals Tom Hayward, James Watkins, and Carl Trost in agreement. The Maritime Strategy and six hundred ship force enjoyed broad, bipartisan support through the decade until the Soviet Union started to weaken and ultimately collapse.

Sadly, the Maritime Strategy linked to a specific fleet force structure (six hundred ships) was also a casualty of the end of the Cold War. The lack of a naval opponent with the demise of the Soviet Union, along with the implementation of the Goldwater Nichols Act provisions and the results of the First Gulf War that seemed to promise a joint solution was always the right answer combined to end the Maritime Strategy and shrink the size of the fleet from more than 550 ships in 1991 to potentially 250 by the end of the decade. In his June 1990 Senate Armed Services confirmation hearing incoming CNO Admiral Frank Kelso in reply to a question from Senator John McCain on what the Navy intended to do now that Soviet Union was gone replied that a strategy required an enemy, and since the Soviet Union had collapsed, what was now needed was a policy. Kelso further started that he intended to “put the Maritime Strategy on the shelf” but that it could be taken down and again used if Russia or another peer opponent returned.

The peer opponents have both risen and returned with revanchist attitudes. While the Russian fleet remains small and troubled as the rest of the Russian military as evidenced in the disastrous Ukraine campaign, it maintains a formidable force of noticeably quiet and well-armed submarines that can threaten U.S. shores with Kaliber land attack cruise missiles. The Chinese have built a large fleet including aircraft carriers, cruise missile armed surface ships and a number of submarines. This force is supported by land-based missiles and aircraft that menace U.S. and Allied forces at long ranges from the Chinese homeland. The geography of the Indo-Pacific calls for a sea and air-based effort, yet the U.S. insists on a “tyranny of jointness” where all services tend to get the same amount of the defense budget. This enforced parochialism and divided chain of command amongst regional combatant commanders tends to tie the Navy to a variety of land fronts rather than allow the service to concentrate on mounting a global response to Russian and Chinese threats as in World War 2 against Nazi Germany and Imperial Japan.

The navy clearly needs to grow in physical numbers to effectively cover this global maritime battlespace. The service has been down this path however with success in the past that is worth re-examination. A “divest to re-invest” program has been successfully carried out during the Cold War. CNO Admiral Elmo Zumwalt retired dozens of World War 2 built aircraft carriers, cruisers and destroyers and other ships (over 150 vessels during his tenure as CNO from July 1970  to 29 June 1974,) in order to begin construction of ships including the Nimitz class carrier, the Spruance class destroyer, the Oliver Hazard Perry class frigates and other warships that would serve the fleet for the next quarter century and more.

Admiral Zumwalt however was blessed with larger budgets over the course of his CNO tenure. The current Navy confronts at best a flat or even decreasing Navy budget over the next five years and must make hard choices on what ships to retain and which to retire. In particular, the CG-47 Ticonderoga class cruisers have become the focal point of criticism of the proposed ship retirements. While the Tico’s class have an impressive weight of missile firepower (122 vertical launch missile cells per ship,) and have had their combat systems modernized, their hulls and mechanical and electrical equipment; much of it 1970’s and 1980’s designs are rapidly aging past economical sustainment.

Like a car driven many thousands of miles without regular, dealer service and parts, the cruisers have deployed many times and have seen their maintenance opportunities pushed back or eliminated to keep them operational. The overall, shrinking size of the fleet coupled with the same deployment schedule as a force twice it size in past decades has served to age the overall navy at a much faster rate than was the case during the larger fleet 1980’s. The cruisers are just the leading edge of a wave of ships that will need to be retired due to age and overuse. The navy needs more money to pay the bills to retain the cruisers a little longer for potential conflict, but also to build the next generation of warships for peer competition as Admiral Zumwalt did 50 years ago.

How does the Navy today secure the funding from a Congress skeptical in the wake of excessive costs and problems with successive classes of ships? It’s time to “take the Maritime Strategy off the shelf” as Admiral Kelso suggested in 1990. Congress should again allow the Navy, the one service with an expansive global battlespace to again issue an operational level of war plan that the CNO can use to brief to civilian leaders how the sea service will act in both peace and war. Having such a plan in the 1980’s did not mean that command was somehow divided or that the Navy would not act jointly with the other services. The Maritime Strategy of the 1980’s was in effect the maritime component of the national military strategy and accepted by President Reagan and even his political opponents such as Senator Ted Kennedy and Representative Thomas P. “Tip” O’Neill as the right course for the service to follow.

For the Navy, a global strategy that details in general terms what the fleet will do should accompany the planning document that creates such a fleet. Such a plan will give the maritime service the extra argument points it needs to convince Congress of the requirement for a larger part of the overall defense budget. Given the current threat posed by China and Russia, it is understandable that Congress needs both a strategy and a force design submitted in tandem to support the larger fleet needed to deter and if necessary, defeat peer aggressors on a global scale. It is time for the Navy to take the maritime strategy off the shelf and again create an operational level of war plan detailing what the 355 ship, or other designated navy force structure will do. The 30-year shipbuilding plan is not enough.

Dr. Steven Wills is a navalist with the Center for Maritime Strategy, Navy League of the United States. 

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Dr. Steven Wills is a navalist with the Center for Maritime Strategy, Navy League of the United States.