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Smart Bombs: Military, Defense and National Security

The U.S. Navy Must Grow to Confront China (But We Must Study Past Sins)

USS Enterprise
The aircraft carrier USS Enterprise, right, the guided-missile destroyer USS Porter (DDG 78) and the guided-missile cruiser USS Vicksburg (CG 69) transit back to their homeport of Norfolk, Va. Enterprise, Porter and Vicksburg are returning from a deployment to the U.S. 5th Fleet area of responsibility, where the ship conducting maritime security operations, theater security cooperation efforts and support missions for Operation Enduring Freedom. (U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 3rd Class Jeff Atherton/Released).

Chinas threats against Taiwan, backed by a rapidly modernized and expanded U.S. Navy, fuel the urgency to grow the U.S. Naval and Maritime fleet. However, rising to such challenges does not absolve our government from accountability for past sins – notably those still impacting the U.S. Navy from 20 years ago.

Recall, for example, the December 2016 Senate hearing that raised the questions of who has been held accountable for wildly wrong cost estimations, unrealistic schedule expectations and failed management of the Littoral Combat Ship (LCS) – to include unworkable anti-submarine warfare mission modules and a failed deployment and crewing concept of operations. Those questions remain unanswered. Accountability remains elusive for poor decisions in other programs going back to the early 2000s: Ford-class aircraft carrier, Zumwalt-class destroyer, and the P-8 maritime patrol aircraft.

Notable failures included: unrealistic cost and schedule estimates; overly optimistic expectations regarding the development of novel technologies (in Fords case, plans called for the simultaneous development of several ground-breaking technologies: weapons elevators, electromagnetic aircraft launch and advanced arresting gear systems), and poor program decisions (development of P-8 aircraft without a viable anti-submarine torpedo for several years).

However, of these its the LCS fiasco that has had the greatest lasting impact, leaving todays U.S. Navy woefully under-resourced in numbers of small surface vessels and reducing the overall confidence of the Navy within the Government and Congress. Originally estimated to cost $220 million per ship, that figure ultimately more than doubled. Mechanical issues arose with its novel reduction gears, needed for high-speed operations. A 2007 hearing explored some of the root causes of this programs failures: reduction of key staffs, design concurrency, and fundamental misunderstanding of American Bureau of Shipping Naval Vessel Rules in the acquisition process. Watching the 2016 hearing, it was obvious that senators felt misled on the actual risks and costs to develop this ship.

Despite the perceived or real deception, that troubled shipbuilding program has seen little public accountability. Why?

All of the programs mentioned were conceptualized and developed in the early 2000s under the strategic vision presented in Sea Power 21. At that time, the U.S. retained an unrivaled military capacity. Business management theories of the day extolled cost-efficiencies, while mission effectiveness was deemed less critical against foes with limited naval power. Responsible leaders of the time, like the Chief of Naval Operations and the Assistant Secretary of the Navy for Research, Development and Acquisition, can be forgiven a little for making decisions based on the luxuries of the time.

One factor obscuring accountability of who sets mission and design requirements for naval warships is the joint requirements process (or JCIDS) established with the 1986 Goldwater-Nichols Act. The effect has been that the Navy is not solely responsible for warship design, which makes little sense and complicates accountability.

Thankfully the Navy and Congress have taken actions to avoid a repeat of including too many untested systems in new warship designs. This lesson was learned the hard way after Donald Rumsfeld, while Secretary of Defense, agitated for revolutionary new platforms contrary to a more judicious incremental evolution of naval shipbuilding.

Congress and the U.S. Navy have also rediscovered the value of shore-testing new systems as seen with the large unmanned vessel development and the Constellation-class frigate. Yet mistrust lingers that only a fuller accounting of the past can mitigate. Sadly, given the nature of shipbuilding and federal resourcing, it is usually years before bad decisions can be recognized, long after those responsible have moved on, meaning that accountability today necessarily resides with those in positions of authority almost 20 years ago.

U.S. Navy

The guided missile destroyer USS Laboon arrives for a routine port visit to the island of Crete. Laboon is on a scheduled six-month deployment in support of Standing NATO Maritime Group (SNMG) 2 and is conducting operations in support of Operation Active Endeavor. Active Endeavor operates in the Mediterranean Sea and is designed to prevent the movement of terrorists or weapons of mass destruction as well as to enhance the security of shipping in general. U.S. Navy photo / Paul Farley.

As the Navy considers new submarine and destroyer designs, appropriate design, industrial base and acquisition processes to reduce cost and delivery risk should be the theme. Thankfully, that appears to be the Navys focus on incremental improvements in these new ship designs. As Ohio-class submarines, Ticonderoga-class cruisers, and other Cold War-era ships reach end-of-life, the urgency for building these new ships is real. But it is critical that the lessons of FordZumwalt, P-8 and, most importantly, the LCS are not forgotten.

As the threat from China sharpens, there is no time left for repeating past errors in shipbuilding. Accountability for those mistakes is long overdue. However, the U.S. Navy and Congress must exorcise the ghosts of these failures, while growing the fleet today.

Brent D. Sadler is The Heritage Foundation’s senior research fellow for naval warfare and advanced technology.

Written By

Brent Sadler joined Heritage Foundation after a 26 year Navy career with numerous operational tours on nuclear powered submarines, personal staffs of senior Defense Department leaders, and as a military diplomat in Asia. As a senior research fellow, Brent’s focus is on maritime security and the technologies shaping our future maritime forces, especially the Navy.



  1. Commentar

    November 10, 2022 at 5:31 pm

    Heh, heh, heh, the title alluded to only big bigly laughs from the reader !

    US ought to study past real sins, like the bloody mindless pacification of the Philippines, the bloody pillage and murders of the 1900 military expeditions, in particular the gaselee expedition in which rape and slaughter was high galore.

    Also, the extremely murderous and totally uncivilized bombing of civilians by massed aircraft raids in WW2, Korea & nam and in middle east.

    Then the use of chemical warfare in south-east Asia, especially use of agent orange which gave rise to cases of very severe physical disabilities in south Vietnam and the leftover thousands of tons of cluster munitions.

    Those are real sins of the past, not the wasteful military spending on war toys.The US Congress is the bank lender or more correctly bank manager to the military anyway.

    The US has no right to dogbark brazenly over Taiwan which is now the DIRECT cause of tension in the region today.

    The very endless provocative visits, the warrish statements by biden, the sale of advanced weaponry, the mischievous warship sail-bys, the middle-finger-salute flights by spyplanes and recce aircraft and shouts for war tonight in Congress, the presence of US military personnel on the island and cat-out-the-bag statements by US military commanders all fully constitute totally unlawful, unwarranted & uncivilized dogbarking.

    It is that very atrocious dogbarking that sparked the Ukraine war in europe, and now US is so eager for a similar one in Asia.

    Can US accept such type of dogbarking in, say, the US virgin islands or Puerto Rico, where some people are still opposed to US ‘occupation’.

    Can US accept constant war drills or war exercisesvby other countries in, or near, Cuba. Can US tolerate such warrishly dogbarking conduct.

    The US must study real sins of the past, take a long good look in the mirror, ask if US itself is now writing armageddon on behalf of mankind without permission or authority, ask if diplomacy should trump over military posturing and dogbarking.


    The US can never blame itself; it will always blame others. Even if it is the sole source or wellspring of the trouble or the evil.

    Like the recent explanation given for numerous sightings of UFOs. They were the work of a foreign power explained the DoD. Nothing more.

  2. Steven

    November 10, 2022 at 8:13 pm

    Commentar, all the “sins” you categorize were enabled by 2 things: politicians, and the ignorant people who put them in office. But 1 thing you don’t mention: At the end of WW2 we were the sole atomic power. We hadf the world, and we gave it back. Would Cuba or Hitler have done that?

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