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Report: Navy’s 306 Ship Goal Faces Multiple Obstacles

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USS Arlington (LPD-24) under construction at Ingalls Shipbuilding. Huntington Ingalls Industries Photo

USS Arlington (LPD-24) under construction at Ingalls Shipbuilding. Huntington Ingalls Industries Photo

In the U.S. Navy’s perfect world, the service will reach its goal of a 306-ship fleet by 2020, according to the service’s latest 30-year long-range shipbuilding report, submitted to Congress on July 1 and obtained by USNI News on Monday.

But the likelihood of the service ever reaching that goal is still an open question — one made no clearer by the new report, which is loaded with caveats and assumptions.

The congressionally mandated 30-year shipbuilding plan is arguably one of the most criticized documents from the Pentagon.

For example, Rep. Randy Forbes (R-Va.) delivered his annual assessment in a Monday statement to USNI News.

“The new shipbuilding plan lacks the resources to be anything more than a piece of paper,” said Forbes, chairman of the House Armed Services Subcommittee on Seapower and Projection Forces.
“With a continued . . . shortfall in the shipbuilding budget, even the Navy’s minimalist goals will remain unfulfilled absent a reversal of sequestration or a decision to prioritize Navy investments over other national security goals.”

In this most recent edition of the report, the Navy points to more-than-usual stumbling blocks in the way of getting the money and resources it needs to build and maintain the 306-ship fleet.

The list includes overcoming ongoing sequestration cuts, an assumption that the service’s ships meet their expected service lives and finding additional funding for Chief of Naval Operations Adm. Jonathan Greenert’s number one priority — the $100 billion Ohio Replacement nuclear ballistic missile submarine program (ORP).

Sequestration

For starters, the law and the Navy disagree how much money the service has to spend on ships.

The Navy’s budget submission earlier this year for ships in the five-year period of the Future Years Defense Plan (FYDP) does not account for the Budget Control Act of 2011 mandated sequestration cuts in its shipbuilding accounts.

The Navy’s FYDP assumes an average $14.7 billion shipbuilding budget (SCN) per year. The difference between that top line and the realities of sequestration are about the cost of a guided-missile destroyer

With sequestration, the shipbuilding accounts is 12 percent —or about $1.76 billion — lower per year, according to estimates from an April Pentagon report on how sequestration would affect the military’s bottom line.

And the likelihood of the service making up the gap in funding is slim.

Congress’ repeated reticence to remove the spending limits within the 2011 Budget Control Act (BCA) is unlikely to change anytime soon, several legislative sources continue to tell USNI News.

The Navy’s assessment is also shackled to the larger Pentagon political fiscal strategy of submitting budgets that ignore sequestration cuts while making persistent requests for Congress to eliminate the funding shortfalls.

For example, Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel delivered an ultimatum to Congress that without the removal of sequestration cuts, the Pentagon would decommission the aircraft carrier USS George Washington (CVN-73) and eliminate the carrier’s air wing.

However funding to keep the ship in the fleet has been a staple of several versions of current set of defense funding bills with no sign of the sequestration cuts being removed.

It’s unclear how sequestration cuts would affect the shipbuilding accounts long term. The April sequestration report from the Pentagon said the Navy would lose eight ships across the FYDP and could lay up as many as six destroyers, but provided few other details past 2019.

A $100 Billion In Submarines

An undated artist's rendering of the Ohio Replacement. Naval Sea Systems Command Image

An undated artist’s rendering of the Ohio Replacement. Naval Sea Systems Command Image

If the BCA restrictions weren’t enough, the Navy identified “significant challenges to resourcing the [Department of the Navy’s] shipbuilding program,” outside of the sequestration limits.

Beginning in 2021, the Navy will begin buying its replacement for the 14 Ohio-class nuclear ballistic missile submarines (SSBN) — the Navy’s share of the U.S. strategic nuclear deterrent.

From 2021 to 2035, the service’s estimated shipbuilding budget will rise to about $24 billion a year at the peak of the SSBN program — double the Navy’s $13 billion historic shipbuilding budget.

The service has said in the past it would need an injection of $60 billion over 15 years in the shipbuilding account to prevent a reduction in the number of other ships it buys,

“Just using some generic examples: If we only get half of that [$60 billion], we will lose 16 ships out of the Navy’s inventory that we would otherwise procure in that time. . . . With only half of that assistance [$30 billion], you’d lose four [attack submarines], four large surface combatants and eight other combatants,” Rear Adm. Richard Breckenridge, the then Navy’s director of undersea warfare, told the Seapower subcommittee in September.
“If we get zero, you’re looking at 32 less ships.”

Says the latest version of the 30-year report: “The [Navy] can only afford the SSBN procurement costs with significant increases in our topline or by having the SSBN funded from sources that do not result in any reduction to the [Navy’s] current resourcing level.”

Expected Service Surface Life

One of the key assumptions of the Navy’s plan is that it will retain existing ships to the end of their expected service lives (ESL), which range from 30 to 50 years, depending on the ship class.

It’s almost a foregone conclusion the Navy will keep intact the exhaustively planned schedules of its nuclear carriers (50 years) and submarine fleets (33 to 50 years) but the ESLs of the service’s non-nuclear surface fleet have a been a moving target, depending on whom you ask.

The service’s requirement for large surface combatants — a stable mix of 88 guided missile cruisers and destroyers — has remained constant from the last year’s shipbuilding plan to the current version.

The assumption that the large combatants will reach a 40-year service life is integral to the underpinnings of the Navy’s 30-year plan.

The Navy sees small dip below 88 in 2034, but its curve holds mostly at or above the target.

The Congressional Budget Office (CBO), however, in its assessment of last year’s plan, asserted that the Navy’s ESL math for large surface ships was incorrect.

“The [Navy’s] plan would fail to meet the goal of 88 large surface combatants (destroyers and cruisers) in 2030 and beyond,” according to the CBO.
“The Navy assumes in its plan that most of its destroyers will serve for 40 years, even though the Navy’s large surface combatants have typically served for 30 years or less. If the current destroyers serve for only 35 or 30 years, the shortfall in large surface combatants would be more than twice as large as projected in the Navy’s plan.”

According to CBO estimates, a 30-year service life would mean a cruiser and destroyer drop to below 88 as early as 2017.

Maintenance

A sailor welds during the ongoing maintinance availability for carrier USS Dwight D. Eisenhower (CVN-69) on June 26, 2014. US Navy Photo

A sailor welds during the ongoing maintinance availability for carrier USS Dwight D. Eisenhower (CVN-69) on June 26, 2014. US Navy Photo

The CBO’s estimated ESL shortfall could come faster depending how well the Navy is able to maintain its current cruisers and destroyers.

For much of the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, the Navy’s surface ships had inconsistent maintenance that was deferred because of operational needs.

In 2009 the Navy began an extensive program — led by Naval Sea Systems Command (NAVSEA) — to make up for years of poor maintenance.

However, sequestration has threatened to derail the five-year old program with funding lapses, which could lead to skipped maintenance availabilities and — in turn — a service life shorter than even the CBO estimates.
“You can’t build your way to a 300-plus-ship Navy,” then-Naval Sea Systems commander Vice Adm. Kevin McCoy told Proceedings shortly before his retirement in 2012. “We needed the 300-plus ships based on our analysis of the world to do our mission.”

According to the April report, the Navy could see a reduction of up to 30 percent of its depot level maintenance availabilities under sequestration.

Questions About LCS Unanswered

USS Freedom (LCS-1), left, and USS Independence (LCS-2) in 2012. US Navy Photo

USS Freedom (LCS-1), left, and USS Independence (LCS-2) in 2012. US Navy Photo

One question left unanswered in the 30-year plan is how many small ships the Navy can afford to field. Right now, the Navy wants 52.

But the Littoral Combat Ship program — the Navy’s plan to replace several classes of ships — underwent a major shakeup in February following a Hagel-directed study to revaluate both the Freedom and Independence LCS classes.

Hagel asked the Navy to find a tougher and more lethal ship.

The ongoing Department of the Navy study has a mere five months to evaluate variations on the existing hulls and new designs before it’s the end-of-July deadline.

How the results of the plan will affect the bottom line requirement for the Navy’s smaller ships is yet another open question. Making a ship tougher and more lethal comes with a higher price tag.

As a result, the Navy could easily reduce the numbers to make up for any increased cost of the ships as part of the LCS restructure.

  • Peter

    The list is interesting in that the USN has no small ships except the LCS. There are no missile boats, no patrol boats, no corvettes, no fast attack boats, and no frigates. Everything is “big name, big ticket, and big bucks” purchase. I guess the US Coast Guard and SOCOM will be the contributors of the “small boats.”

    • James Bowen

      I agree that the Navy needs to emphasize small craft more. Such craft are well suited for the defense of littoral areas. During World War II we had patrol craft and PT boats, and during the 80’s we had a few Pegasus-Class hydrofoils which were armed with Harpoon anti-ship missiles. We need a fleet of small, fast patrol craft heavily armed with anti-ship missiles and torpedoes, and possibly some small submarines along the lines of the Swedish Gotland-class.

  • Gunz4fun

    When I was in the Navy (’64-’86) we had a 600 ship Navy until Carter was president, funds started to be spent on welfare programs and all of the Services started to suffer.

    • bpuharic

      Carter didn’t invent welfare. I suggest you learn some history.

      • Gunz4fun

        Your right that Carter didn’t invent welfare, LBJ did (I knew that/so did you), but Carter in his misplaced logic, could have slowed down the bleeding by not striking so many ships from Active/Reserve status and slowly boost the Welfare programs. It got so bad (short on “Operating Funds/Budget” for supplies) that the two leading Gunner’s Mates (I was one) would have to take wiping rags home (soaked in Hydraulic Fluid) to wash/dry so that we could reuse them the next day. We couldn’t even afford buy a set of “Allen” wrenches from Servmart to work on the Mounts. Every ship that was in Pearl Harbor at the time was in the “same boat”. With less ships (from 600 down to 300) there should have been more funds for those that did survive the “Axe”, but that was not the case. We didn’t recover the same operating fund level for over a year (while still in the Shipyards).

    • James Bowen

      The U.S. Navy had some 900 ships in 1970, but many of them were World War II-era ships whose weapons systems were obsolete by that time. During the 1970’s, these ships were retired but were not replaced. The fleet fell to 400 some odd ships by 1980, at which time the numbers started to rise to just under 600 at the end of 1988. Interestingly enough, despite the Reagan/Lehman calls for a “600-ship Navy”, the number of new combatants authorized by Congress did not change significantly between the periods of 1975-1980 and 1981-1988. Although the Reagan Administration was given credit for this increase in naval strength, it appears that this was just a result of a roughly constant level of naval construction between the mid 70’s and late 80’s, which itself was probably an attempt to gradually make up for the large number of decommissionings in the 70’s.

  • OleSalt_1

    This is very discouraging news alright. The global role of the USN will gradually diminish with the drastic naval asset reductions. There are doubts by some of the allies about Obama’s pivot to Asia. We hope the next President of the USA is more forward looking if America aspires to continue being a Superpower.

    • bpuharic

      Presidents are limited by budgets. Aircraft carriers aren’t free.

    • James Bowen

      I agree that this is very discouraging news. However, I do think that any set of actions and policies that reverse the Navy’s decline must necessarily address a number of issues. One of those issues is the mission of the U.S. Navy (and the rest of the armed forces for that matter). The U.S. Navy’s most basic mission is to protect and defend the United States, her citizens, and her vital interests. In trying to protect everyone else, we have spread the fleet thin and have run an unsustainable op tempo that has caused major material and maintenance problems, not to mention prompted the retirement of vital platforms and capabilities without any real replacement (e.g. the F-14 Tomcat and its fleet air defense role). It is time we decide which alliances are truly important to the security of the U.S. so that we can consolidate our forces accordingly.

      • OleSalt_1

        Agreed James. Each country should build up its own defence force, as we should not rely only on the USN. Japan has steadily built up its military and have made recent amendments to its Constitution re: military cooperation and involment with the US. Japanese PM Abe has sign an agreement with the Aussies just a few days ago. Perhaps a Defence Cooperation/Alliance in Asia just like the SEATO of yester years would be ideal, with the US Military involved. This should discourage any aggressor especially in S.E. Asia.

        • James Bowen

          Very interesting. Japan’s amendment was news to me. Thanks for the info.

  • Gray Stoke

    I personally find this situation ridiculous on the part of the politicians. If the majority of American people and Congress don’t want to spend money on ship building, that is ok. We are a democracy after all. But a reduction in budget should have equal consummate reduction in the responsibilities that the Navy is tasked for. The Fleet cannot provide presence when there are no ships to put at sea in the first place.
    If Congress is balking at the cost of replacing the Ohio-class boomers, they should seriously reconsider America’s nuclear-triad deterrence strategy.
    At the end of the day its Congress’ responsibility to provide and maintain a Navy.

  • ed2291

    This is a clear failure of Navy leadership who lack the courage to do or even say the right thing. No other service names its equipment after politicians or losing battles. (USS Bataan) Ever since we started below 600 ships our admirals have eagerly gone along with the fantasy that things would be made up in future years and now even a 300 ship Navy seems realistically out of reach. Not having the courage to down select one of the LCS ships, retire in protest, or even talk honestly before congress stands in sharp contrast to earlier generations of navy heroes.

  • Capt Woody Sanford

    Gunz4fun: Sir, the 600-ship Navy was never anything but a small gleam in SecNav John Lehman’s eye. There was never any realistic funding schedule, building plan, or congressional approval . President Jimmy Carter had very little to do with the success or non-success of the program. The year you left the Navy, the first Maritime Strategy was published. It matched mission to assets, but the projections were totally unrealistic. For one thing, way too many surface warships, not enough aircraft or attack submarines.

    Thanks for your Navy Service.
    Woody Sanford, MD
    Capt,MC,USNR(ret.)

  • Secundius

    Considering the US Navy, is being involved in more, and more “brush fire” wars. They should consider reactivating SCS-75 Program. Having a Light or Jeep Aircraft Carrier with approximately 30-aircraft air wing.
    > (16) Lockheed-Martin F/AV-35B Lightning II
    > (3) Boeing-Bell EV-22B’s
    > (3) Boeing-Bell SV-22B’s
    > (3) Boeing-Bell K/CV-22B’s
    > (5) Sikorsky MH-60R/S Romeo/Sierra.