Condition sinking: Navy faces shipbuilding crisis

CONDITION SINKING: The U.S. Navy faces a shipbuilding crisis in the 2020s as several whole classes of ships are ready for replacement all at once.

By Steve Wilson | Mississippi Watchdog

Two words describe the Navy’s shipbuilding woes: Condition sinking.

Mismanagement and multi-billion dollar cost overruns are becoming bigger enemies for the Navy than the Chinese ever could. Navy plans for a 306-ship fleet are taking on water, awash in a sea of cost overruns and a huge block of older ships that will have to be replaced.

Hard budgetary choices are needed, and the consequences to U.S. foreign policy could be serious. Without sufficient ships, the Obama administration’s “Pacific Pivot” — a foreign policy to contain China’s rising military power by shifting naval and air assets to the Pacific would be in jeopardy.

“It’s pretty simple,” said Christopher Preble, vice president for defense and foreign policy studies at the Cato Institute. “The Navy faces a choice: spend the same amount of money on shipbuilding and get less ships or spend more to get the amount of ships it says it needs.”

During a hearing July 10 before the House Armed Services Committee, Rep. J. Randy Forbes, R-Va., asked a simple question of Sean J. Stackley, assistant secretary of the Navy for research, development and acquisition: Can we meet the Navy’s 30-year shipbuilding plan with about the same money allocated over the past 20 years?

Simple answer: No.

“The funding requirements over the period of 2020-2034 exceed the budget we’ve had over the last 30 years,” Stackley said. “We will have to prioritize the modernization of those ships (a service life extension program for Ticonderoga class cruisers) and construction over the rest of our budget.”

One of the biggest reasons for the coming fiscal trainwreck — or shipwreck — involves the replacement of the Ohio class ballistic missile submarines (SSBNs). The most survivable part of the nation’s nuclear triad that includes the Ohio class, land-based intercontinental ballistic missiles and manned bombers, the replacement ship class of 12 submarines will likely cost more than $100 billion. Preble said the Navy is trying to spin the cost of the SSBNs out of the shipbuilding budget, a plan he doesn’t think will work.

The problems don’t end there.

The new Gerald Ford class nuclear-powered aircraft carriers — of which the Navy plans to procure 10 to replace its older carriers — is meeting serious technological and budgetary headwinds. Like their namesake, the ships are tripping over their budget thanks to problems with their new technological features — such as a new arresting gear and electromagnetic catapult — designed, ironically, to save money.

The USS Gerald Ford (CVN-78) is costing more than $1 billion than expected. Three of the carriers will cost the Navy $43 billion to procure, according to a General Accounting Office report released in 2013, and that doesn’t include the cost of the air wing or the surface ships that protect the carrier from surface, air and submarine threats.

GETTING UGLY: This graph by the Congressional Budget Office shows the dollar amounts required to get the U.S. Navy to a 306-ship fleet. The dotted line is the average funding for shipbuilding from 1984 to 2013.

Ships take three to four years to build, test and bring into service, so any interruption in the procurement pipeline can play havoc with fleet numbers, as newer ships aren’t available to replace older ones when they retire.

The alphabet soup approach has yielded plenty of paper and some great Power Point presentations, but few ships.

The Navy originally planned to replace a large proportion of its destroyers and cruisers with the SC-21 — Surface Ship for the 21st Century — program that was later replaced by the administration of George W. Bush with the simpler Future Surface Combatant program. The result of the FSC involved the Zumwalt class destroyer; the Navy planned to buy 32 and later reduced that to seven. In 2010, the Obama administration chopped the numbers of Zumwalt class ships to just three and restarted production on the Arleigh Burke class destroyers, which are built at Ingalls Shipbuilding in Pascagoula, Miss., and Bath Iron Works in Bath, Maine.

PHOTO BY: U.S. Navy

READY FOR SERVICE: The USS Zumwalt (DDG-1000) guided-missile destroyer is floated out of dry dock at the General Dynamics Bath Iron Works shipyard.

The USS Zumwalt (DDG-1000) is the poster child for the so-called lost decade, coming in at a cost of $3.5 billion and the same size and weight as a Cleveland class light cruiser of the World War II era.

The Zumwalts have several radical design features, including a controversial tumblehome — the hull narrows from the water line to the upper deck — shape for stealth purposes, a much-reduced crew complement — 140 versus 331 for an Arleigh Burke class destroyer — and a 6.1-inch Advanced Gun System designed for fire support of Marines ashore. Other Navy destroyers and cruisers carry smaller 5-inch guns not as useful for fire support.

The ships won’t be equipped with standard surface-to-air missiles like other destroyers and won’t be capable of ballistic missile defense or provide long-range protection for the fleet against enemy air or missile attacks. They will have only 80 cells in their vertical launching systems for missiles, versus 96 cells in the Arleigh Burke class destroyers and 122 in the Ticonderoga class.

Also coming in over budget and in smaller numbers is the Littoral Combat Ship program to replace an aging fleet of Oliver Hazard Perry frigates and mine warfare vessels.

According to a report to Congress, the ships were originally planned to cost $220 million per hull, but are now coming in about $457 million. They will cost $25 billion for 32 vessels and 64 mission modules after the Pentagon cut the number from 52 in January.

No wonder their nickname among some critics is the “Little Crappy Ship.”

The LCS is designed as a high-speed multipurpose vessel for operations in the littorals — coastal waters— with reduced crews compared with the frigates they’re replacing. The LCS has an open architecture capable of handling modules for different missions. Instead of selecting one contractor and one design, the Navy decided in 2009 to build some of each.

There are also doubts about the ships’ ability to survive battle damage and its weak baseline armament of a small-caliber guns and machine guns. Unlike the frigates they are replacing, they don’t carry long-range Harpoon anti-ship missiles or antisubmarine torpedoes.

The Freedom — built by a Lockheed/Marinette Marine consortium in Wisconsin — and Independence classes — built by a General Dynamics/Austal group in Mobile, Ala. — have had their share of problems, including mechanical maladies and corrosion issues.

PHOTO BY: U.S. Navy

TRIPLE HULL: The USS Independence (LCS-2) is the lead ship of the Austal-built Independence class of LCS ships.

The ships also need to go on a serious diet.

In a report released Wednesday, the General Accounting Office says some of the early ships are overweight, thus making them unable to meet their designed speed and endurance. This weight problem could also affect the Navy’s ability to modify the vessels to incorporate new technologies.

“The concept of the LCS, with some flexibility provided by modules, still could have worked. In theory,” Preble said. “The actual LCS program didn’t. The decision to go with two very different platforms eliminated some of the economies of scale. You end up with two distinct supply chains, two training pipelines, two manufacturers with vested interests, etc.

“It was not a wise move. And the modules weren’t very modular after all.”

Only one of the LCS ships have made a deployment, the USS Freedom (LCS-1), to Singapore. Another GAO report detailed how the ship was plagued with two major engineering casualties. Despite extensive support from repair personnel ashore, the crew was overworked and fell short of Navy sleep standards, despite the addition of 10 extra crew before the deployment.

In a stunning indictment of the LCS, the Navy is already looking for a replacement, issuing a Request for Information this year. The Navy says it’s looking for “mature ship designs and mature concept designs that have the capability and lethality generally consistent with a small surface combatant.”

That’s something obviously lacking in the LCS.

PHOTO BY: U.S. Navy

MONOHULL: The littoral combat ship USS Freedom (LCS-1) is under way conducting sea trials off the coast of Southern California. Freedom is the lead ship of the Freedom variant of LCS.

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Rob Port is the editor of SayAnythingBlog.com, a columnist for the Forum News Service, and host of the Plain Talk Podcast which you can subscribe to by clicking here.

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