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Toward the 200 Ship Navy Pt 1

March 22, 2010
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The average real cost of Navy ships have increased at an alarming rate, outpacing Pentagon projections and growing from $1.2 billion during the 1980’s to at least $2.5 billion in 2009. Shipbuilding resources, on the other hand, are projected to remain fixed between FY2011-15.  The Navy thus finds itself in a conundrum: projections of a fixed, $14 billion annual shipbuilding budget conflict with CBO’s projection that a 313 ship fleet will cost $20 billion or more annually.

 CBO estimates that staying within budget will yield a fleet of between 170 and 240 ships.  Getting to 313 within the context of existing plans, it seems, would require rebalancing in other areas of Navy procurement…Budgetary tactics aside, however, a main cause of this disconnect the Navy’s inability to discipline procurement costs. Every recent major Navy ship purchase has been over budget, with programs such as the Littoral Combat Ship more than doubling in cost.

Stephen Abott at Budget Insight

If you will note that after each generation of shipbuilding, the US Navy has been on a steady downward spiral since at least the Vietnam War. For instance, after reaching a high of almost 1000 ships in 1968, ten years later this impressive figure was nearly halved to about 500 ships in 1978. The great mass of warships which defeated Germany and Japan had mostly run their course and were now either scrapped enmasse or sold off to Allies (with a few notable exceptions).

The same phenomena occurred at the end of the Cold War, when through great efforts Ronald Reagan restored the Navy’s fortunes providing it with a 600 ship Navy and a strategy for winning the 40 year stand-off at sea. Almost immediately after the demise of the Red Navy, post-war construction from the 1950s and 1960s were sent to the breakers, most notably the old nuclear cruisers upon which high hopes had been placed for a “New Navy” of many such vessels in the Atomic Age. Today the only nuclear powered surface warships within the fleet are 11 aircraft carriers of the Enterprise/Nimitz classes.

We may be set for another dramatic downsizing of vessels, if history is any judge. The purging of the late Cold War ships, Ronald Reagan’s Navy, has already begun, and the last of the Spruance destroyers are long gone. The Perry class frigates would have received the same treatment, except the admirals lack of interest in building low cost patrol vessels have given them new lease on life. The Navy’s fascination with the high tech and the exquisite has little room for such low-cost craft–which explains much of the ongoing decline in recent decades.

But the 30+ year old frigates will not last much longer, their intentionally cheap construction forbidding excessive wear and tear and it is remarkable they have lasted this long. The old Ticonderoga cruisers, the first examples of the marvelous Aegis warships that have revolutionized how the Navy fights, won’t stay much longer. Now we have learned there is no replacement for our venerable cruisers, it looks like as a type they will disappear from the US Navy, replaced by slightly smaller but still very capable destroyers of the Arleigh Burke class.

According to the Navy, some 41 amphibious warships will be replaced by 9 examples of the LPD-17 San Antonio class. Aside from the glaring faults which have crept into the design in an attempt to place so much capability on a single hull frame, there is the problem of presence. Trusting in ships which are ever more capable but ever fewer in number seems so much wishful thinking that a platform will be always available for whatever contingency it is called on, that they will never suffer combat lost or attrition in warfare, which historically has no basis in fact. We learned from as far back as Pearl Harbor that even the most heavily armed and armored  warships are vulnerable to countermeasures, and we were gravely reminded of this fact as recently as the year 2000 when the destroyer USS Cole was knocked out of service for a year by a terrorist suicide boat.

Back in 2003, when we were still dreaming of getting a 360 ship fleet, Charles W Jones from one of America’s shipbuilding unions wrote the following:

Even before September 11, the U.S. Navy was complaining that their ships were spread too thin around the world. Modern warships employ sophisticated technology and can do far more than similar ships in the past. But no matter how evolved their technology, no ship can be in two places at one time.
When it comes to ships, numbers do count.

So we think the current generation at the Navy Department are purposefully instigating the demise of the US Fleet, and we fear all those who trust in its benevolent protection. The casual procurement of the littoral combat ship, with all its flaws and excessive cost overruns shows a fleet still obsessed with giant multimission ships which are ever harder to build and ever costly. With each successive classes the type of aircraft carrier, destroyers, submarine, and amphibs, the weights of individual warships have mushroomed, which is obviously the reason for the price rise.

Tomorrow-a Leaner, Meaner Fleet.

10 Comments leave one →
  1. Carol Cole-Ramos permalink
    March 24, 2011 10:53 am

    and the Killer Carrier by China?

  2. Mike Burleson permalink*
    March 22, 2010 1:20 pm

    Joe wrote “Won’t tomorrow’s post (a leaner, meaner fleet) simply be the 250th rewrite of the story of how we need to quit all the large aircraft carriers, retire all the “super-sized” subs, shrink down the size and missile capacity of the Burkes…”

    Yes! But New and Improved with cool graphics! Had to put them somewhere. LOL

  3. Joe permalink
    March 22, 2010 11:45 am

    In advance forgive me for writing with sarcasm and cynicism, but after last night’s House vote I’m running a special on those two emotions today.

    Won’t tomorrow’s post (a leaner, meaner fleet) simply be the 250th rewrite of the story of how we need to quit all the large aircraft carriers, retire all the “super-sized” subs, shrink down the size and missile capacity of the Burkes..or flush them altogether…and instead go with Harrier Carriers, AIP subs, and corvettes – or the kissing cousins thereof??

  4. Hudson permalink
    March 22, 2010 8:25 am

    Why the target level of 313 ships? What’s the magic in that number? Why not just round the number down to 300, and save billions in the process?

  5. Distiller permalink
    March 22, 2010 7:57 am

    Mike, I think this should be bisected a little.

    In the USN numbers graph above the number/quality of (potential) enemy units should be overlayed – with an eye on blue water/power projection denial capability. That is these days mostly SSNs, and I don’t see anyone even coming close to endanger the U.S. naval power projection denial capability.

    What some countries are increasingly capable of is denying the U.S. its power project abilities in their respective neighbourhood. Especially in the WestPac, behind the chain of barrier islands that go from North Japan down to the Philippines and the Sunda Islands. But that does not mean that whoever is inside there is capable of projecting its power outside. It’s a little like the German Hochseeflotte being caged in the North Sea, but on a strategic level.

    In the air it is a little different, as in case e.g. China is building An-124 style ultra-long range cargolifter they would decrease their dependency on naval power for power projection. And with shrinking carrier numbers with short-ish legged fighters there might be a gap. Could be closed with air-to-air armed HALE UAVs like an AMRAAM’d Global Hawk, or fitting out e.g. the B-1Bs with AMRAAM for strategic CAP missions.

    And then another overlay would be interesting showing the USN power projection capabilities, on a USN but also overall force level (meaning long-range attack and mobility), and in comparison to the numbers/quality the potential enemies could bring up against it. The USN is certainly no longer capable of going everywhere, and that endangers the overall force projection ability of the U.S.

    But more and more the big potential enemies are too big to fight (conventionally), as were the Russians 25 years ago. And for the small ones even the current level is overkill. I think there needs to be a conscious decision whether mainland China is an enemy that the U.S. would fight conventionally, or only strategically nuclear. I think the trend points to the second path. Doesn’t mean proxy wars wouldn’t happen, probably we are already in one or two. But it might be that in the long run a top-tier large scale power projection capability is no longer realistic, and the power-projection-denial capability will become the prominent USN function.

    Or in other words, the USN could go the path of the German Kriegsmarine.

  6. Mike Burleson permalink*
    March 22, 2010 6:33 am

    Philbob, I don’t expect the shipbuilding budget to increase, but I think Navy can change the way it buys and builds ship. As it is, we purchse battleships and then use them as patrol boats. Think we can do better.

  7. Philbob permalink
    March 22, 2010 6:13 am

    Well dont expect that number to rise, especially in light of the fiscal black hole that Obamacare will turn out to be. (To be fari though it wouldn’t be going up if it had not been past either)


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