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The Balisle Report and the Navy’s Future Pt 2

July 20, 2010

Yesterday New Wars spoke of the Balisle Report on the USN’s budget problems and readiness woes. It’s contents are just starting to filter onto the Internet, and one of the first revelations concerned the vaunted Aegis missile radar, the crux of the Navy’s future. Phil Ewing  of Navy Times, who has been all over this study, reported a few weeks ago:

Although sailors and other observers have said before that cuts in crew sizes hurt readiness, Balisle’s report is the first to detail so many problems with Aegis, widely considered the world’s finest seagoing radar and combat system. It is so powerful and adaptable, in fact, the Obama administration is banking on it to become a permanent BMD shield for Europe next year, taking the place of ground-based sensors and weapons as U.S. warships make standing patrols in the Mediterranean.
But the report said Aegis, like the rest of the fleet, has become a victim of personnel cuts and the Navy’s labyrinthine internal organization. Casualty reports are up 41 percent from fiscal 2004, and those requiring technical assistance are up 45 percent. Over the same period, SPY radar performance, as observed by the Board of Inspection and Survey, has steadily worsened for cruisers and destroyers.

The problems seem to come down to lean-manning, as one of the primary goals of the Navy has been to reduce personnel costs, and the number of crew on board warships. A principle selling point for the new LCS has been its low manning requirements, something New Wars has posted on several times. Somehow the Navy’s smaller crew plans never seem to match with any plans for smaller ships, and fewer weapons, that naturally produce savings. The Australian submarine fleet has suffered near-mutiny in recent years because of over-zealous manning issues with saw small crews doing the work of many, at the same time suffering numerous deployments.

Apparently the multimission concept modern fleets expect from their high-priced warships was never designed with the crew in mind. Yet men are not automatons.

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Naturally though, instead of looking internally for fault, it is human nature to find an outward foe. In the Navy’s case, this usually falls on the shipbuilders. Aside from budget-cutters in Congress, the nations shrinking number of shipbuilders is the fall-guy for all their woes. A prime example has been the LPD-17 San Antonio class amphibious ship, touted as the future of expeditionary warfare, the 9 ships are supposed to “replace a total of 41 ships”. This seeming miraculous capability in one vessel sounds to good to be true, and experience proves this a correct assumption. Again here is Phil Ewing:

Endemic government and contractor failures — including shoddy workmanship and bad quality control — caused the engineering problems aboard the fleet’s San Antonio-class amphibious ships, according to a new Navy report, and, in the case of San Antonio itself, the $7.5 million repairs it needs might prevent it from making a deployment in the near future…

In January, the Navy announced the latest round of problems — the lube oil systems aboard San Antonio and its siblings were contaminated and damaging their main engines, so Navy engineers needed to sideline them for inspections and repairs. Several of the ships were quickly remedied, but San Antonio and the fifth ship, New York, got the worst of it.
Although New York has at least been able to get underway using three of its four main diesel engines, San Antonio is laid up in a Norfolk, Va. dry dock until August or September.

Apparently the Navy is willing to accept the ongoing problems as confined to the shipyards, yet Balisle suggests otherwise. However, no one in the leadership is willing to step forward and promote any realistic change, as Phil details in yet another post on the subject:

Privately, the Navy’s top leaders have got to be angry. But when the latest San Antonio report was released Thursday there were no public statements from anyone in the Pentagon. Naval Sea Systems Command said nothing. (Today, in response to a request for comment, a spokeswoman affirmed “the Navy has full confidence in the Supervisors of Shipbuilding.”) And there was nary a peep from anyone outside the family — members of Congress, defense-reform groups or the Beltway think tanks…

Are enduring problems with brand-new warships just not that big a deal, given everything else that’s going on these days? Is the problem that, if every link in the chain — from design to shipbuilder to inspector to fleet — is broken, no single one can be singled out for reform? What should the Navy do about the San Antonio class?

*****

With the Navy refusing to take responsibility or action for its widespread woes, some of its supports are starting to crumble. The Northrop Corporation, builders of USN aircraft carriers, nuclear submarines, and destroyers is closing the Avondale shipyard where the LPD-17 was born, and likely leave the shipbuilder business altogether. Chris Cavas at Defense News explains the fallout:

Northrop Grumman on July 13 confirmed rumors that it will close down its Avondale shipyard near New Orleans and consolidate its Gulf Coast shipbuilding operations at the company’s Ingalls yard in Mississippi. In a greater surprise, the company also announced it is exploring strategic alternatives for its shipbuilding business….

About two-thirds of all U.S. Navy ships are built by the company. The Ingalls yard in Pascagoula also builds the U.S. Coast Guard’s National Security Cutters.

A potential crippling blow not only to the defense industry, but to the country as a whole. The problem is, the USN just doesn’t order enough ships to make all the headaches viable, rather proffering to concentrate missions and abilities in a few exquisite and “cost effective” hulls. Heritage.org reveals the fallacy of this ongoing decision by the admirals:

First, the lack of appropriate investment in Navy and Coast Guard shipbuilding has led to overcapacity. The Navy’s goal for a 313-ship floor to up to 323-ship fleet is unlikely given the current rate of procurement. According to a May 2010 Congressional Budget Office study:

The Navy needs to purchase an average of 9.2 ships per year to maintain a 322- or 323-ship fleet. Over the past 18 years, however, the Navy has acquired ships at the rate of 6.4 per year, which would result in a fleet of 224 ships at the end of 35 years. Thus, after 18 years, the Navy is now 51 ships short of being able to sustain a 322- or 323-ship fleet.

If Congress adopted the proposals suggested by the Sustainable Defense Task Force the Navy would be reduced to 230 ships including only nine aircraft carriers. How many more shipyards would need to close as a result of such reductions? What maritime missions would the nation have to sacrifice based on limited assets?

Heritage’s answer is more money, yet are there no internal fixes to the Navy’s mounting difficulties? Especially since we see with a destroyer now pricing $5 billion each, aircraft carriers at $15 billion each, as the latter already soaks up 16% of the entire Navy personnel strength of 300,000+, on a mere 11 hulls. In no way can such gold-plate platforms be purchased in any numbers to make shipbuilding viable again in the United States. Neither are many large and powerful warships needed in most cases, as the principle USN foe at sea are these thread-bare fishermen of Somalia!

*****

Therefore, I have hope…

I hate to leave on this somber note, but the truth is there are no quick fixes or easy answers. Everytime some type of reform is mentioned, there is panic among Congress and industry, outcries in the media and the public of “they are destroying the Navy”. The admirals seem to be doing quite well on their own at self-destruction, as shipyard after shipyard is closed due to lack of orders. I will leave with the following thoughts from Kenneth Hagan’s book on the history of the US Fleet “This People’s Navy“, that hopefully may inspire a new generation:

The truly visionary naval leader of the generation spanning Vietnam and the Gorbachev revolution was Admiral Elmo R. Zumwalt, Jr. His tactical innovations as the senior naval officer in Vietnam showed an adaptability and practicality that was rare in a navy whose hierarchy had been taught to think in terms of rigid war-fighting doctrines conceived to defeat major powers. Tapped at an early age to become the navy’s senior officer, Admiral Zumwalt brought his fresh insights to Washington. For four years he fought to restructure the navy around new kinds of ships designed from the beginning to fight “conventional” and limited wars or to intervene effectively in episodes of modern “gunboat diplomacy.” In the end he was defeated by a pragmatic alliance formed between key congressman and the navy’s two leading interest groups, the aviators and the Rickover-led nuclear-power officers. Still, when the Soviet empire in Eastern Europe began to crumble in 1989 and the American defense budget in 1990 came under its closest  congressional scrutiny since the beginning of the Cold War, it began to appear that the harbinger of the American navy of the future was not John Lehman but Elmo Zumwalt.

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  10. leesea permalink
    July 21, 2010 2:20 am

    There is NO need for the USN to own more shipyards! The Navy can easily decide to put certain type ship construction into specific shipyards, since different shipyards do have different capabilities. But the Congress would onject to such a rational plan.

    The other shipyards that are part of NGSB may well be spun off. Read Tim Colton for some good suggestions.

    The Navy now has access to two yards to build nuke subs. And there are Naval Shipyards which work on repairing subs. I don’t think we need more than that.

  11. Fencer permalink
    July 21, 2010 12:05 am

    While these issues with the AEGIS combat system show that minimal manning has problems, Most of the proposals I have seen on New Wars’ fail to account for the fact that personnel costs are a major portion of the Navy’s budget and are rising faster than inflation. I find little point in deriding the cost of a $12 billion carrier (especially when that ship will serve the Navy for 50 years and new technologies may actually result in savings over the long run) when the 2010 budget includes over $26 billion in personnel costs. If we had never built any of our current carriers we could almost pay the fleet for 4 years (assuming nothing else was built instead). When compared to the immense capabilities they provide their cost seems like an excellent deal. When you say that the carriers require 16% of the US Navy’s personnel it is almost a positive point when you consider that they represent at least 25% of the fleet’s offensive power.

    Lastly here is something I was thinking; why doesn’t the Navy buy Newport News and then consolidate all of its naval construction in that one shipyard? It’s not like the free market is working to reduce costs or provide better products in US naval shipbuilding and it would surely be cheaper to expand one yard when it’s needed than to spend extra money keeping multiple yards open that we don’t need. If WWIII started tomorrow would the additional expense of having kept two shipyards capable of building submarines been worth it when it takes over five years to build a sub?

  12. Jacob permalink
    July 20, 2010 5:03 pm

    If warships are being built with too many bells and whistles, then what exactly can be cut? How much is really fat that can be trimmed as opposed to being actual necessities of modern warfare?

  13. Chuck Hill permalink
    July 20, 2010 4:30 pm

    Prior to WWII, sailors learned their trade on ships. There were a lot of junior people. They came on board ignorant, and they weren’t immediately useful, but senior people were motivated to train them so that they could take over some of the load. Chiefs and Captains pointedly did not sweep their own corridors. When the ship got in trouble and crew members were killed some of those junior people were able to step up and fill in essential roles.

    Now we train people on land and expect them to show up fully trained. Somehow we forget to cover many of the things that are important, that could not have been glossed over during training at sea. The senior people ashore have far less incentive to educate the junior people. But do we have fewer people overall because we have fewer people afloat–no.

  14. CDR USN Ret permalink
    July 20, 2010 9:29 am

    Not so fast re Z. I was a serving officer when Z took over. I have a vivid memory of the confusion and chaos he caused with his Z-grams. I believe that the current crop of USN leaders are direct descendants of the “fashionable” brand of leadership. Need an example? post VN our ships were all falling apart due to the pursuit of headline grabbing missions that were both irrelevant and inconsequential.. so what did our leadership do? They changed the uniform! Does all this sound familiar?

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