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Fact Vs. Fantasy Navy Shipbuilding

February 1, 2010

First the Fantasy, from Loren B. Thompson of the Lexington Institute, appearing before the House Armed Services Committee on January 20:

…Many of you have no doubt heard the hottest shipbuilding rumor spawned by the QDR process — that the number of
aircraft carriers will be cut from eleven to ten, or even nine. It is true that we are headed down to ten in 2013 because of the time-gap between when Enterprise retires and the first Ford-class carrier joins the fleet, but that is a temporary situation.
Although the Navy could meet current warfighting requirements with one or two less carriers, a permanent cut wouldn’t be prudent for two reasons…
—  First, warfighting needs are likely to change in the future.
—  Second, wartime attrition is likely to occur in the future.
So it makes little sense to cut the number of carriers to the absolute minimum currently required, and the Navy’s 2011 shipbuilding plan will call for maintaining eleven flattops through 2040.

Here are the facts, from Eric Labs, before the same committee, detailing The Long-Term Outlook for the U.S. Navy’s Fleet:

If the Navy receives the same amount of money for ship construction in the next 30 years that it has over the past three decades—an average of about $15 billion per year in 2009 dollars—it will not be able to execute its fiscal year 2009 plan to increase the fleet from 287 battle force ships to 313.1 As a result, the draft 2011 shipbuilding plan drastically reduces the number of ships the Navy would purchase over 30 years, leading to a much smaller fleet than either the one in the 2009 plan or today’s fleet.

The draft 2011 shipbuilding plan increases the Navy’s stated requirement for its fleet from 313 ships to 324, but the production schedule in the plan would buy only 222 ships, too few to meet the requirement.

I encourage readers to continue to pay close attention to the Navy Budget over the next few years, not the fantasy wishlist of the Admirals and their supporters in Washington. Mr Labs goes on to reveal ” carrying out the Navy’s 2009 plan to build and sustain a 313-ship fleet would cost far more than that: a total of about $800 billion (in 2009 dollars) over 30 years—or an average of almost $27 billion a year“.

In the extreme unlikelihood the Navy will even get the $27 billion to create the 313 ship Navy, it will still be a fleet of technically flawed vessels, that are overly engineered, stretched thin, with crews suffering almost constant deployments because of ongoing global challenges. Because of its small size, it will be one easily rattled by the most minor of threats, since there is little to no investment in small warships suitable for sea control, or defending large warships in shallow waters.

5 Comments leave one →
  1. Mike Burleson permalink*
    February 4, 2010 6:07 am

    MG-Please recall where Mr Thompson stated “So it makes little sense to cut the number of carriers”

    Then goes on to detail deficiencies in the surface fleet and submarines. I still contend that this latter is the fallout from the former, or a over-dependence on large deck carriers which we can no longer afford, and thanks to modern technology, no longer require as drastically as before. V/STOL aircraft, cruise missiles, and increasingly sea based unmanned aerial vehicles offer viable alternatives to now $12 billion dollar platforms, which have been used exclusively non-naval powers, Third World rogue dictators, even terrorist hiding in caves, which is a gross disproportion of firepower and resources. No wonder we continue to shrink when we concentrate power and scarce shipbuilding funds in a handful of extreme gold-plated ships, that might be at risk in the peer conflicts we claim we need them for.

    Everyone, including the Navy, sees the problem with the shrinking fleet. No one wants to make the tough sacrifices to get this vital fighting machine back on course.

  2. February 3, 2010 11:28 pm

    Opps. My typo: Lehaman and not Leaman.

  3. February 3, 2010 11:25 pm

    I don’t see either Loren’s or Eric’s testamonies as contradictary, but as complimentary. That is, they are both saying the same thing — the size of the Navy is going to shrink and not expand. To believe otherwise is to buck the trend that’s moved that way since John Lehman was SecNav (1981-1987) under President Reagan. Leaman tried to increase the size of the fleet, was somewhat successful, but the total number of hulls in the water has been in a steady decline.

    Consider that in the carrier fleet we’ve retired CVT-16 (1991), CV-59 (1993), CV-60 (1994), CV-61 (1992), CV-62 (1998), CV-63 (2009), CV-64 (2003), CV-66 (1996) and CV-67 (2007). Likewise CV-41 (1992) and CV-43 (1990) were retired. At the same time we brought three CVN-58 class aboard beginning in 1975) and seven CVN-71 class beginning in 1985. What the raw numbers don’t show is that many of these retired ships were in-service at the same time the new carriers were brought on-line and the total numbers were higher.

    Likewise, the DD-963 class (Spruance), FFG-7 (Perry), DDG-993 (Kidd) classes have been shrinking in numbers and have not been replaced on a 1-to-1 basis. Ditto for the SSN and SSBN fleet.

    The amphibious types and auxiliary ships in-service have likewise shrunk in numbers and have not been replaced 1-to-1.

    Bottom line: the fleet IS shrinking and the USN has absolutely no plan to build more physical numbers of cheaper ships. What we see are huge, under-armed, hideously expensive, and FEWER ships every year.

    Does the USN have a plan to reverse this slow, steady attrition? NO. Does the USN want to change its present course on its current ship building priorities? NO. Will the numbers of Navy ships in-service decline? YES.

  4. Mike Burleson permalink*
    February 3, 2010 10:30 pm

    Loren, thanks for posting.

    It’s not just me saying these things, but the Congress as well. Can we expect numbers to remain even static, with the current shipbuilding budget? But predictions seem to point to smaller figures, as we follow the numbers here closely.

    We are at the brink. Sailors are over deployed on an aging, smaller fleet. There is nothing left to cut, and all the tricks the Post Cold War Navy has used to sustain the carrier fleet is failing. We already deploy far fewer aircraft on the flattops than they can carry, and the F-35 future is in doubt (though not yet out). In no way can the Navy manage a war of attrition at sea of the type the Army has faced on land since you can’t perform sea control with warships geared for expeditionary warfare. Only a massive influx of small, spartan ships can save it, as with the Cold War, and World Wars, since no technology can replace hulls in the water.

    It is a proven fact of naval history that you can’t perform sea control with battleship types alone. We are top heavy with exquisite warships, mechanically flawed, consistently over budget and too often delayed when entering service. The slightest pressure from some Third World dictatorship as in North Korea upsets the whole balance.

    I am encouraged by the JHSV numbers but even the Navy knows this isn’t a warship but a support vessel. It will likely be built faster though than the flawed LCS concept, a patrol boat armed vessel at a frigate price.

    Hope is not a shipbuilding strategy.

  5. February 3, 2010 8:03 pm

    I don’t get why my remarks qualify as a fantasy. I was trying to defend the Navy’s requirement for 11 flattops and knock down an (erroneous) rumor that the number of carriers would be cut to ten or nine. What I said is borne out by the Navy’s budget release. Furthermore, I offered a proposal later in my testimony for how the Ohio replacement could be funded that would reduce the pressure on future shipbuilding accounts.

    I thought everything Eric Labs said in the hearing was eminently reasonable, but I didn’t think I was disagreeing with him.

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