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Fiscal Year 2018 Budget Set to Answer Lingering Navy Acquisition Questions

USS Sampson (DDG-102) steams along San Celemente Island on May 7, 2017. US Navy Photo

Since the last Pentagon budget request 15 months ago there’s been a presidential election, a seven-month continuing resolution, a supplemental spending bill, promises from the new administration for a military spending spree, vows from inside the Pentagon to rebuild readiness and multiple studies looking at what a future naval fleet should look like.

In the churn leading up to this week’s release of the Fiscal Year 2018 budget request to Congress, questions still remain on the Navy’s acquisition and readiness plans. The following is a list of important policy and acquisition issues that Navy officials have declined to comment on but have assured USNI News and the public that answers would be found in the budget request.

Shipbuilding and Conversion, Navy

USS Tripoli (LHA-7) is launched at Huntington Ingalls Industries’ (HII) shipyard in Pascagoula, Miss. on May 1, 2017. US Navy Photo

President Donald Trump called for a 350-ship fleet as early as last summer – a specific promise at the time, which was later backed up by the Navy’s Force Structure Assessment that called for 355 ships, as well as three separate Future Fleet Architecture studies that generally supported fleets of around that size.

With the general consensus being that the Navy needs more ships, the question now is, how will the service achieve that? The Congressional Budget Office looked at various rates of shipbuilding to analyze how much it would cost, and House Armed Services seapower and projection forces subcommittee chairman Rep. Rob Wittman (R-Va.) told USNI News he believes the Navy should aim for 355 ships in the next 25 to 30 years.

Vice Chief of Naval Operations Adm. Bill Moran told USNI News the Navy may need as $150 billion over the current shipbuilding plan to “jump-start” shipbuilding and get on a trajectory to 355 – helping shipyards make the investments in their workforce and facility needed to build today’s ships faster, and to prepare for new classes of ships that will be central to that 355-ship fleet. And Chief of Naval Operations Adm. John Richardson told reporters last week that the industrial base could handle 29 additional ships over the next seven years beyond what the current shipbuilding plan calls for. But the question remains, will the Navy actually seek the money it needs to get on that trajectory to 355 as fast as the service and the shipbuilders can handle? And if the Navy does look for a quick buildup, will it focus on the massive “USS” warships already under construction – aircraft carriers, attack submarines, destroyers and amphibious transport docks – or will it rely on some less expensive “USNS” ships, such as the expeditionary mobile base (formerly called the Afloat Forward Staging Base) to help bolster the fleet buildup numbers?

While FY 2018 itself isn’t likely to include major investments in shipbuilding – Defense Secretary James Mattis made clear in a Jan. 31 memo that 2018 would focus on wholeness, with acquisition to support a force buildup starting in 2019 – there may be some investments to help shipyards train new employees, build additional indoor work facilities and more to support an upcoming surge in work. And with the 2018 budget submission will come an outline of spending plans for the Future Years Defense Plan that runs through FY 2022, so much about the Navy’s buildup should be revealed this week.

Littoral Combat Ship

USS Montgomery (LCS-8) enters dry dock for Post Shakedown Availability (PSA) at BAE Systems Ship Repair facility. US Navy Photo

The Navy has planned to transition from its Littoral Combat Ship to a frigate since 2014, but in recent months it has totally revamped its plan for doing so, starting over with its frigate requirements development process and moving from a faceoff between the two LCS builders to an open competition for shipbuilders around the globe. Program and surface warfare officials vowed in a recent hearing that more details about the new transition plan would be included in the 2018 budget submission.

Questions that remain are: how many LCSs will be purchased before the frigate transition takes place? In its 2017 budget request, the Navy outlined a plan to buy two in 2017; one a year in 2018, 2019 and 2020; and then two in 2021. However, Program Executive Officer for LCS Rear Adm. John Neagley said at the recent hearing that the two builders, Austal USA and Marinette Marine, needed the Navy to buy three ships a year to sustain their yards and allow them to compete for the frigate. Lawmakers forced the Navy to buy three in the recent 2017 spending bill, but at the hearing Neagley declined to comment on how many ships the Navy would actually buy in 2018 and beyond, only noting that the industrial base required three a year.

As for the frigate, when will the Navy complete its requirements development and begin to compete design contracts to industry? When does it believe it can award construction contracts? How much will the frigate cost? Some or all of these questions may be answered in the Navy’s outline of the FYDP.

Attack Submarines

USS Illinois (SSN-786) conducts sea trials. General Dynamics Electric Boat Photo

Perhaps the number-one thing the Navy wants to do if more funding is available for a fleet buildup is to buy more Virginia-class submarines. The Navy is facing a massive submarine shortfall in the next decade, at the same time it is facing an increase in work for the two submarine shipbuilding yards due to the introduction of the Columbia-class ballistic-missile submarine and the Virginia Payload Module addition to the SSNs. The Navy originally intended to buy two SSNs in years without a SSBN, and one of each during SSBN acquisition years. In 2015 then-acquisition chief Sean Stackley said the Navy was looking at industrial base capacity to build two SSNs every year, regardless of the Columbia subs. Then perhaps each SSN would have a Virginia Payload Module built in, to give it extra missile-carrying capacity, rather than just one VPM a year. And then some lawmakers wondered if perhaps industry could build three SSNs a year. This budget submission should reveal how the Navy intends on handling the massive workload for General Dynamics Electric Boat and Huntington Ingalls’ Newport News Shipbuilding through FY 2022.

LPD to LX(R) Transition

An artist’s concept of the 12th San Antonio-class (LPD-17) amphibious warship Fort Lauderdale. HII Image

Budgeting plans surrounding the LX(R) amphibious dock landing ship replacement program, and the LPD amphibious transport dock the LX(R) is based on, have changed multiple times in the last couple years. Previous budgets had the final LPD bought in FY 2016 and LX(R) beginning in FY 2020, which would have left a production gap at Ingalls Shipbuilding and may have risked the yard having to lay off workers, only to try to rehire them again. So in FY 2016 lawmakers cobbled together funds for an LPD-28, a 12th ship in the class, as a bridge from LPD to LX(R), as well as a small sum of money to begin accelerating the LX(R) design.

This year’s final FY 2017 spending bill, just passed by Congress this month, both adds nearly $1.8 billion for a 13th ship, LPD-29 – the production line is moving so efficiently at Ingalls that even LPD-28 was now expected to leave a production gap – and more than $25 million funding to accelerate LX(R) development. The 2018 budget should reveal new details about the updated transition schedule, as well as whether the LX(R) will be included in the Navy’s fleet buildup or whether the service will allow the program some time to prove itself ahead of looking at speeding up production.

Aircraft Carriers

The aircraft carrier Pre-Commissioning Unit (PCU) Gerald R. Ford (CVN 78) pulls into Naval Station Norfolk for the first time, upon completion of the ship’s builders trials. HII photo.

The nuclear-powered aircraft carrier may take the longest of all the Navy’s ships to build, but service leadership hopes to include the carriers in the fleet buildup effort as well. The Navy currently buys carriers one every five years, a rate that is less efficient for sole builder Newport News Shipbuilding and has led the service to dip below the congressionally mandated 11-carrier fleet. Industry has long been pushing for three- or four-year centers on the aircraft carriers, and CNO Richardson said last week that his shipbuilding acceleration would include a quicker carrier construction rate. This budget document is likely to reveal just how fast the Navy thinks it and its industry partners can build a carrier.

Cruiser Modernization

USS Chancellorsville (CG 62) arrives at Commander Fleet Activities Yokosuka on June 18, 2015. USNI News

The Navy and Congress have been at odds over how to approach the modernization and life extension of the Ticonderoga-class guided-missile cruisers. The Navy in 2013 suggested decommissioning half the fleet to deal with sequestration, arguing it didn’t have the money to man and operate them, let alone modernize the full class of ships. Congress in FY 2015 mandated that two cruisers a year be inducted into the modernization program, which led to the 2/4/6 plan – in which two ships a year would be inducted into the modernization program, for no longer than four years each, with no more than six ships laid up at any given time. The Navy has continued to push back against that, including in both its FY 2016 and 2017 budget requests, arguing it could save billions of dollars if it laid up all the remaining cruisers and modernized them only as older cruisers begin to decommission. This week’s budget will show whether the Navy will this year go along with the 2/4/6 plan or push back again to save money on the remaining five or so cruisers yet to be inducted into the modernization program.

Super Hornets v. Joint Strike Fighter

F-35C Lightning IIs, attached to the Grim Reapers of Strike Fighter Squadron (VFA) 101, and an F/A-18E/F Super Hornets attached to the Naval Aviation Warfighter Development Center (NAWDC) fly over Naval Air Station Fallon’s (NASF) Range Training Complex in September 2015. US Navy photo.

The Navy’s plans for its future air wing have long centered around having the fourth-generation F/A-18E-F Super Hornet and fifth-generation F-35C Joint Strike Fighter operating side-by-side. One a stealthy battle management tool and the other a lethal bomb truck, the Navy never intended to compete them against one another, until President Donald Trump on Dec. 22, 2016, suggested in a tweet that Boeing could develop a Super Hornet variant “comparable” to the JSF for a lower cost. As a result, Defense Secretary Mattis ordered a review of the two aircraft in a Jan. 26 memo. The budget should indicate how the Navy intends to move forward.

Hypoxia Concerns

Aviation Structural Mechanic 3rd Class Jeffery Hendricks removes a screw from an Onboard Oxygen Generating System (OBOGS) while performing special maintenance in the airframes shop aboard the Nimitz-Class nuclear powered aircraft carrier USS Harry S. Truman (CVN 75) on Jan. 5, 2008. US Navy photo.

The Navy has a growing problem with breathing-related issues for fighter jet pilots – both hypoxia, in which pilots cannot get enough oxygen or receive contaminated oxygen from their masks, and cabin pressure issues that can lead to decompression sickness. The number of so-called physiological episodes is increasing at an increasing rate and affecting all the Navy’s jets: legacy F/A-18 Hornets, F/A-18E-F Super Hornets, EA-18G Growlers and T-45C Goshawk trainers. Navy leadership has vowed to address this in a resource-unconstrained manner, taking whatever steps are necessary to find the root of the problem, so this budget could give some indication of how the Navy intends to do that.

  • NavySubNuke

    One budget won’t be enough to overcome almost over two decades of neglecting our navy, especially given how much additional damage the last few years of sequestration have piled on, but it can be a good start.
    Mattis’ direction to focus on rebuilding what we have now in 2018 is a solid one. We need to stop the hemorrhaging and save what we have left before we can start rebuilding what we have lost.
    The real question is if we can recover in time. A lot of that depends on what the Navy chooses to do once the build up actually begins: do we prioritize deterring wars where we can and winning those we can’t deter by building more DDGs, SSNs, and selecting a frigate that can actually fight and win or do we choose to continue Mabus’ paper tiger ship-count focused build up and focus on buying a few real warships but filling out the rest with whatever we can buy cheap even if it adds no actual combat capability to the the fleet?
    Only time will tell but if we really do want to keep ourselves from being pushed into irrelevancy in Asia I feel like all of our margin is gone and we really only have one more chance to get this right. Lets hope congress and DoD/DoN can get past the circus and do the right thing for the Nation.

  • Curtis Conway

    The US Navy should consider that fleet growth can accelerate by building the mature platforms like the USS America (LHA-6) that are so versatile, and can perform more than one mission over a single mission programmed Large Amphibious Assault platform. An additional number of versatile USMC F-35Bs, and all the capabilities they bring to the equation with its fantastic and very capable combat system, can be a real game changer in many disparate types of operations. Alternating the well-deck and non-well-deck versions for the next ten units will provide significant versatility in the force, and provide a greater capability to deal with a rapidly changing world. I would very much like to see the Navy push for a new common non-rotating 3D AESA radar on every platform to feed than data into the FORCENET-21. To put the tanks back into the MUE all we have to do is program that additional space into the LX(R).
    Building two multi-warfare frigates in the place of, and for the cost of one DDG-51 Destroyer, will grow the force faster as well, on the same budget. Introduction to game changing technologies should take the field at this stage in the game. Directed Energy Weapons are ready to go on board for self-defense. Those same weapons stations can be built and prepared for DEWs of greater capability in the future so the propulsion, energy generation and distribution systems, should be designed and installed to facilitate this activity. Perhaps an Electro-Magnetic Rail Gun can go on board as it becomes available. Introduction of more Passive detection, tracking and direction systems should be considered as well. The new frigate will provide an obvious and ready platform for that capability. An Ice-Hardened Hull will provide combat power in ice-infested waters like the Arctic and Antarctic where hull-mounted sonars on current surface combatants are inappropriate.
    If the LCS is to remain in the force then greater lethality is required, or they should be assigned to specific missions that will not place them in areas where they are vulnerable to attack by their primary nemesis (subsonic/supersonic ASMCs) in the modern battlespace, particularly those launched from land platforms.
    Adding an additional SSN to the annual building plan should be pursued if possible. Otherwise our adversaries will take full advantage of their absence in the future. Allies can assist, but they also have their own tasking. I’m a fan of the VPM, but more SSNs, with and without VPMs are required.
    In my humble opinion, an LX(R) should be added to the East and West Coast flotillas as members of the US Navy Expeditionary Combat Command. If GWOT is to persist (and it will), and the littorals are to be a focus, then that force should receive the tools it needs to address the threat in the various Combatant Command Areas as required. The LX(R) with MK-IV Coastal Combat Boats (CCB) embarked is a solution to many problems, and should be explored.
    The nuclear-power aircraft carrier force should continue to grow without pause. The USS Ford (CVN-78) will mature leading to a more capable and efficient force via the addition of the Kennedy and Enterprise when they are delivered. The ‘Light Carrier’ concept should be entertained, but use an existing platform that is already mature (LHA-6), and add them to the mix. That construct lacks only one element, a VSTOL/STOVL AEW&C aircraft, which should be able to operate off of any US Navy flight deck for limited, or extended periods of time. This capability is a significant investment, but it is a game changer in the greater battle-space when coupled with NIFC-CA, given our new network-centric systems.
    Cruiser upgrades should continue apace. A new cruiser design, if not to be a double ender stretch DDG-51, should probably have many elements shared with the new Icebreakers. The new cruiser will just have a hull mounted sonar on a significantly differently shaped hull. Propulsion would be an obvious targeted commonality with one of the new nuclear power plants available from the CVN, or SSN platforms.
    The Super Hornet is a proven and capable platform, and new airframes are needed. The congressional studies concerning Electronic Attack capabilities has indicated that more EA-18G Growlers are needed when factoring in overseas support to Allies. If some of our Allies, other than Australia, can be persuaded to take on this mission (Canada comes to mind) then that Allie could take on a new and special mission, and assist in Allied air operations where ever needed. Perhaps the Dutch might consider this move. I don’t think Finland can, but it’s a thought.
    This OBOGS thing must be conquered once and for all. The solution should be rock solid from beginning to end, and include a complete revamp of the maintenance aspects of the system, with multiple vendors supporting production and support. No vice-grips!

  • brian

    A 355 ship navy is a pipe dream. There is barely enough funds to stay ahead of attrition, let alone a maintenance and upgrade schedule for existing assets. Currently the navy is suffering from a backlog of work needed to keep an acceptable level of force readiness for its F-18’s to mention only one issue. There is nowhere near the build capacity available to construct the ships, let alone the recruitment needed to man them. In short it’s not just about money. There is just not enough political capital available in the congress to assemble the funds necessary at the expense of other programs.

    For the carrier fleet. There will need to be a planned life extension for Nimitz, Eisenhower, and Vinson as it is, just to maintain a 11 ship minimum through the initial deployment of CVN 81 planned for 2035.

    A well funded navy is what’s needed to maintain the current force level.