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The Navy’s Last Chance for Reform

September 8, 2009

Sometimes you think you are a “voice in the wilderness”, then something like this comes along. Not sure if David Axe reads this blog, though more likely this is just plain common sense coming from the military journalist and fellow Carolinian, who echoes the desperate call that the Navy reform for today’s conflicts. From the Stimson Center blog here is “Navy’s Chance for Reform, Slipping Away“:

For decades, the Navy has been built around its aircraft carrier battlegroups and amphibious groups. The numbers of each, and the total number of warships in the fleet, has declined modestly, while the average size of ships and their aggregate combat power has increased greatly. Today the Navy has just 280 major warships, compared to nearly 600 two decades ago. But owing to the collapse of any serious competitors, and the rapid advance of American technology, “in terms of overall fleet combat capability, the US Navy enjoys a 13-navy standard,” according to Bob Work, a former naval analyst and current Navy undersecretary.  That means the U.S. Navy is as capable as the next 13 world navies combined. By contrast, the British Royal Navy, during the height of its supremacy in the 19th century, pursued only a two-navy standard.
With such overwhelming conventional superiority, the Navy has a rare opportunity to reform, in benign conditions, in order to address capability shortfalls. These shortfalls lie not in the realm of state-on-state conflict, at which the Navy excels, but in small, low-intensity conflicts and stability operations. The Navy could play a more meaningful role in today’s small wars, if it possessed the right equipment and mindset. That means a willingness to invest in smaller, cheaper ships capable of operating closer to shore.

The writer goes on to discuss why the USN must build ships costing hundreds of millions, instead of the billion dollar warships the admirals prefer. Small ships are desperately needed for small wars, the kind we most often fight, and such vessels have proven essential in the Big Wars as well. On a daily basis we advocate fewer aircraft carriers, surface battleships (missile cruisers, destroyers, frigates, there is little difference anymore), nuclear submarines, and large amphibious ships, since such vessels are individually more capable than ever before, as Mr Axe points out. The high costs of deploying only exquisite warships, not only in price but the numbers you buy and the other important capabilities you give up, hasn’t deterred the Navy:

Work estimates the Navy needs as much as $20 billion annually for new ships in order to maintain the existing force structure. But in the last decade, the Navy has been appropriated just $12 billion per year, on average. Vessels for low-intensity conflict rarely cost more than a few hundred million dollars apiece; traditional big-war ships rarely cost less than a billion. A single DDG-1000 stealth destroyer costs as much as $4 billion…

They are also too big for the soft-power mission:

Today, the Navy sends large amphibious ships on humanitarian missions across the developing world. But existing amphibs are too big for most ports in poor countries. The USS Kearsarge assault ship had to anchor miles off the coast of Nicaragua in August 2008 and was forced to shuttle doctors and engineers ashore in heavylift helicopters. When the helicopters suffered maintenance problems, health clinics ashore were nearly overwhelmed by angry patients, waiting for hours under the hot sun…

But the Navy sees no need for Reform as it continues business as usual, says Axe. You get this idea as well after reading two recent articles from defense-focused websites. The Monster Myths of the CVL Concept maintains there is no substitute for large deck aircraft carriers, which might be the Navy’s F-22 Raptor since it focuses the service disproportionately on the rare Great Power conflict. Also, A Navy Ship On Time, Budget lauds the “economy” of the $5 billion, 14,000 ton Zumwalt destroyer, even though only 3 can be bought to replace 30 of the previous Spruance class. Wedded as it is to a smaller fleet, they seem out of touch with all reality, with a shrinking budget and as foreign navies welcome small carriers, corvettes, offshore patrol vessels, conventional subs, fast attack craft, and even stealth boats, all of which the Navy rejects as being incapable for modern warfare. A sad state for our worn-out sailors and ships who must do more with greatly reduced resources available.

David failed to point out that there might be one other opportunity for the very conservative USN to reform, but a very dangerous one. During wartime the Navy has been known to take to change quite speedily and successfully. Why take such a risk though with the lives of sailors if you don’t have to? Now is the time.


14 Comments leave one →
  1. Mike Burleson permalink*
    September 10, 2009 8:17 pm

    Speaking of the Fletcher’s, pound for pound they were the most heavily armed ships of the war. The only other ship which comes close in my mind to this status is the Israeli Sa’ar 5 class. One thing the old DDs lacked is the long range, and voluminous extra weapons loads of our present ships, yet they were still effective in all theaters and built in many hundreds. We could learn a lesson here, that warships don’t have to be perfect, have every weapon imaginable or do every conceivable function perfectly. They just have to be there when we need then and in adequate numbers. Quantity also has a quality all its on.

  2. Hudson permalink
    September 10, 2009 5:13 pm

    Mike said: “…though this wasn’t always the case.”

    Absolutely. The Fletcher class DDs–one of the all time great ships–had a draft of 6′, the same as the LCS. So it could go anywhere an LCS could go. It fought all kinds of battles against all kinds of enemies: on, above and below the surface of the water. So what does that make it: blue water or brown water? Green water, maybe?

    I’m beginning to think this whole littoral concept is little more than a marketing campaign. The Navy is bending its nose and budget out of shape trying to build a special littoral ship–the by now notorious LCS–a kind of Jack of All Trades and Master of None ship–not a terrible idea but tough to get right and very expensive.

    I think your DD–today’s medium size frigate–can handle 80-90 % of the littoral. Getting in really close to the shore–you’re talking about PTs, hovercraft, mine sweepers, fire support ships. Is this subject really so complicated?

  3. Mike Burleson permalink*
    September 10, 2009 6:06 am

    My point is the USCG knows small boats better than any service, and they know the difficulties of sailing and fighting in shallow waters. Something that the Navy and their Blue Water battleships haven’t a clue, though this wasn’t always the case.

  4. Scott B. permalink
    September 10, 2009 5:16 am

    David Axe said : “But owing to the collapse of any serious competitors, and the rapid advance of American technology, “in terms of overall fleet combat capability, the US Navy enjoys a 13-navy standard,” according to Bob Work, a former naval analyst and current Navy undersecretary.”

    What Mr. Work needs to understand urgently now that he’s been named UNDERSEC is that ever since World War Two, the US Navy’s role has been to secure the command of the sea and the ability to project power ashore.

    As a result, Mr. Work’s*13-navy standard* thingy is grossly irrelevant in this context.

    Using such a concept that’s been obsolete for almost 70 years surely is the best way to waste any chance the US Navy may have to reform and actually set it on a suicidal course !!!

  5. leesea permalink
    September 9, 2009 10:05 pm

    NO the USCG does not need to lead the way in the littorals! Ahh caught your attention did I? My reasons are:
    While the USCG may well be more skilled at littoral operations, its NOT their job to the leader in maritime expeditionary warfare.
    AND they are currently not sized to take on a larger role in the littorals
    oh BTW I would prefer the Coasties be neaby to CONUS performing the great missions they are legally mandated to do.
    Mrs Davis watch closely the NECC. I see that command as a bellweather indicator as to whether the USN will refocus its efforts in any serious manner. P.S. I don’t agree with how “some” have characterized NECC. BTW I have met their officers and sailors and continue to correspond with them.

  6. elgatoso permalink
    September 9, 2009 9:25 pm

    Yes Mike,the USCG need to lead the way in littoral warfare,because they already are doing that .They know the proceedings to hunt pirates and drug-smugglers.With the money of a big ship you can make a lot of purchasing in the USCG.What happens with the reforms in the USCG(the new cutter,the new tilt,etc)???

  7. Shadow permalink
    September 9, 2009 4:34 pm

    On should note that the Navy retained a riverine force on both coasts until the “peace dividend” of the 1990s. Most of these, like the mine warfare squadrons that were disbanded in the same time frame, were manned by reservists, so a wealth of corporate knowledge, maintained at minimal cost, was lost.

  8. Mike Burleson permalink*
    September 9, 2009 8:40 am

    My friend Leesea would disagree, but I’m ready for the USCG to lead the way in littoral warfare, and perhaps shame the regular Navy into doing its job!

  9. William permalink
    September 9, 2009 5:41 am

    Also the US Coast Guards capabilities are a much CLOSER FIT to low intensity/muddy water operations than the US Navy.

  10. William permalink
    September 9, 2009 5:37 am

    Mrs Davis said: “The way to solve the problem is to give the low intensity/muddy water responsibility to the Coast Guard and then for Congress to balance funding levels between the services based on its assessment of the threats faced.”

    Mrs Davis is probably right. I don’t think that the US Navy is capable of building ships costing $100’s of millions in PEACETIME (the evidence proves this), but the US Coast Guard probably is.

  11. Mike Burleson permalink*
    September 8, 2009 9:15 pm

    David Axe said “Of course I read your blog!”

    I knew it! The similarities are uncanny!

    Mrs. Davis said “the Navy won’t reform till wartime”

    I fear you may be right but I keep praying otherwise.

  12. Mrs. Davis permalink
    September 8, 2009 9:10 pm

    Of course the Navy won’t reform till wartime. Peacetime careers are built by keeping congresscritters and senior commanders happy by procuring incrementally improved designs that put lots of money in the right pockets. (unless your name is Rickover, and that could be argued to be a wartime procurement.) The way to solve the problem is to give the low intensity/muddy water responsibility to the Coast Guard and then for Congress to balance funding levels between the services based on its assessment of the threats faced.

  13. September 8, 2009 6:53 pm

    Of course I read your blog!


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