“Gentlemen, of the 313-ship fleet — we’re really just giving lip service to that, aren’t we. I mean, there’s been no proposal to achieve a rate that would get us there. As a matter of fact, it seems that we’re actually falling away from that based on the rate of ships being decommissioned outpacing the rate of production.”
– Sen. Roger Wicker (R-MISS), Senate Armed Services Seapower Subcommittee, June 16, 2009
In the same hearing (video here), Vice Adm. Barry McCullough made the following statement in specific reference to the number of ships in the fleet.
“While the Navy can always be present persistently in areas of our choosing, we lack the capacity to be persistently present globally. This creates a presence deficit, if you will, where we are unable to meet combatant commander demands.”
Sean Stackley also stated in that hearing the Navy would need at least a 10-ship per year build rate to reach the 313-ship fleet benchmark in the 2020 time frame. Unfortunately, the Navy is only buying 8 ships in FY2010, meaning the Navy will need to buy 102 ships between FY 2011 and FY 2020 to reach the 313-ship mark. The timing couldn’t be more challenging for the Navy. For a look into the planning challenge, the FY 2010 Navy SCN budget is $12B; with $3.4B in RCOHs, EROs, and NDSF, for a combined $15.4B annually.
Current plans call for the Virginia class submarine procurement alone to consume an estimated 33%, $4 billion SCN annually, of the Navy SCN budget for the next decade. Additionally, with a recent CBO estimated cost to be around $10 billion for new CVNs, which are built and paid for over a period of 5 years, an additional estimated $2B will be spent on aircraft carriers over the same period of time. That means that $6B, or half, of the SCN budget from FY11-FY20 will be used to procure 20 submarines and 2 aircraft carriers; only 22 ships of the 102 needed to reach the 313-ship threshold. Where will the other 80 ships come from, and what will they look like?
Presumably, 48 of the ships will be the Littoral Combat Ship at an estimated $460M each, or a total cost just over $23.1B SCN of the remaining $60B for the decade. Also presumably, the Navy will buy 1 LPD-17 (FY11), 2 JCC(R), 2 LHA(R), and 1 LHD(X) over the next decade at minimum, which combined will cost around $1.7B, $2B, $3.5B and $3.5B each respectively, or $16.2B SCN total. That would give the Navy 53 of the 80 ships with $20.7B SCN to spend the remainder of the decade.
Over a ten year period, based on FY 2010 budget numbers the Navy would have $34B to spend on RCOHs, EROs, and NDSF. The question though is how far that goes, and how many hulls can the Navy afford. In previous planning documents, the Navy had indicated over that period 13 JHSVs, 3 Maritime Prepositioning Ship-Cargo variants, 3 Maritime Prepositioning Ship-Dock variants (also known as the MLP), 1 T-AGOS(X), 3 T-AO(X), 1 T-ARS(X), and 1 T-ATF(X) would be built. Is this affordable? It is unclear, RCOHs are expensive, but if it could be achieved the Navy would get an additional 25 ships.
Between the SCN totals described above for 20 submarines, 2 CVNs, 53 other SCN purchased ships, and the 25 support ships, that would give the Navy 100 of the 102 ships necessary to meet the 313-ship fleet, with a total of $20.7 billion to spare. Unfortunately, the list above contains purchases for zero major surface combatants. While it is true the Navy will not retire a single cruiser or destroyer during that entire time frame, at best a strategy for building DDG-51s which run at a cost of around $2B each will allow for only 10 destroyers to be purchased with the remaining $20.7B SCN. That would mean no CG(X) replacements, and obviously will not provide enough work to sustain the shipbuilding industry.
The point of this exercise is to highlight 4 points that can be drawn from the data.
1) The Navy is not in a terrible position to reach 313-ships by FY 2020, even as the challenges are obvious. The Navy is in a very terrible position towards sustaining 313-ships beyond 2025 due to the rapid retirement of surface combatants beginning in 2025. Replacing surface combatants beginning in that time frame will be very difficult, because at the same time the Navy will also need to replace retiring platforms including amphibious ships, logistics ships, and ballistic missile submarines. Unless amphibious ships or logistics ships are replaced over the next decade, the rate of retiring surface combatants beginning in FY 2025 will greatly outpace capacity to replace those large, expensive hulls.
2) A SLEP Program for the FFG is not a solution, as a FFG SLEP program would consume funding for new ships to get the fleet to FY 2025. In playing with the various possible options, I have been unable to outline any conherent plan where a FFG SLEP wouldn’t compound the surface combatant numerical challenges that begin in 2025. I don’t believe any legitimate argument exists for a SLEP FFG program towards addressing the Navy’s surface combatant numerical challenges.
3) The Littoral Combat Ship represents $23.1B of the available $60B for SCN spending options and alternatives over the next decade. The LCS accounts for around 38.5% of the available SCN funding. It is legitimate to question whether this platform represents a cost effective investment for the capabilities delivered and expected over a 30 year hull life. Obviously unmanned technology is the future, and modularity is a critical technology for the future Navy, but the Littoral Combat Ship is a relatively small platform for modular payloads, and it is still unclear how big the Navy may desire unmanned technologies to be for combat operations over the next 30 years. It is also very debatable whether the Littoral Combat Ship is well designed for combat in the littorals, considering the LCS was designed with the survivability rating of a logistics ship. The Navy has not determined yet how much flexibility the LCS brings to the fleet. Is the LCS too big for littorals? Is the LCS too small to be an effective unmanned mothership? Does the LCS have enough crew to effectively support manpower intensive operations like fighting piracy? Does the LCS have enough endurance to meet combatant commander requirements? What if the LCS turns out to be only part of the solution to the many requirements this ship is touted to meet? The LCS is more of a question today than it is an answer, but the Navy touts the platform as if the reverse was true.
4) Vice Adm. Barry McCullough stated in testimony the places where this “presence deficit” is identified includes “with new partners in Africa, the Black Sea, the Baltic region, and the Indian Ocean.” McCullough also went on to say “Africa Command capacity demands will not mitigate the growing European Command requirement” and “Southern Command capacity has consistently required more presence that largely goes unfilled.” All of these places suggest the “presence deficit” is specific to presence of the surface combatant force, but most of those places suggest the “presence deficit” is not in regards to high end combat capabilities, but the necessity to engage in littoral places and ungoverned spaces where local Coast Guards are largely incapable of meeting the regional maritime security requirements.
In my opinion, all signs suggest the Navy needs to substancially increase the quantity of surface ships to meet emerging trends and forward commander requirements, but it appears fiscally impossible to do so when the only two surface vessel options includes only two options, the $460M LCS and $2B DDG-51. Of all the discussions to be had in the QDR process, not to mention when taking the long view of the future and accounting for the history of naval construction since the end of the cold war, surface warfare is in dire need of new fleet ideas, new logistics models for sustaining forward presence, and new technologies to meet the challenges of emerging trends in naval combat. With each competing fleet model proposed, tested, and evaluated as part of the QDR process, the Navy would be very wise to study all of these ideas carefully and find the best ideas in surface warfare that can be applied to building a larger, more cost effecient 21st century fleet that contains the kind of capabilities the trends suggest will be in demand in the future.