Crisis of Confidence

By Rear Admiral William Houley, U.S. Navy (Retired) and Rear Admiral James Stark, U.S. Navy (Retired)

The new maritime strategy specifies four traditional missions or core competencies—sea control, power projection, deterrence, and forward presence—augmented by two new missions, maritime security operations and humanitarian assistance/disaster relief. Of course these latter missions are anything but new. U.S. Navy units have been fighting pirates, protecting our coasts, apprehending smugglers, and assisting in humanitarian crises and natural disasters since the very beginning of our republic. Nevertheless, highlighting these missions is a positive development because they will be increasingly important in the next two decades as we confront failing states, terrorism, overpopulation, climate change, resource scarcity, massive population shifts, and political instability.

The validity of the current force structure goal of a 313-ship floor has come into question because that number precedes the latest maritime strategy, A Cooperative Strategy for 21st Century Seapower . Certainly, the numbers and mix need to be re-examined in light of the new guidance. In a May 2008 Proceedings column, Harlan Ullman asked: "Should spending decisions tilt toward counterinsurgency operations and irregular warfare or procurement of high-tech weapons for conventional war?" After examining the range of Navy and Marine Corps missions, it is clear we do not have the luxury of making such a choice.

It's a Game of Chess

Strategy is not solitaire. Whatever direction we take, our potential enemies will observe and react, taking advantage of any weakness, and confront us where we are most vulnerable. This is exactly why the United States finds itself enmeshed in asymmetric, irregular warfare in Iraq and Afghanistan. Our enemies will not engage us where we are strongest. That imperative means we have little choice but to build a balanced Fleet and, indeed, balance our armed forces as a whole, such that we can deal successfully with an array of threats from low-level crisis and humanitarian relief all the way up to war with an adversary at either the conventional or nuclear level.

Assuming the Navy is able to make its case, is it reasonable to expect the additional appropriations that would enable it to execute its strategy and attain its shipbuilding goals? The answer today is probably not. Those funds can come from only three sources - increases to the overall Department of Defense budget, transfers from the budgets of the other services or DOD agencies, or funds from elsewhere within the Navy's own budget. But as the conflict in Iraq winds down, we can expect defense spending to level off, while within DOD the immediate priority will be on resetting, refurbishing, and recapitalizing the Army and Marine Corps. Inside the Navy, higher operational tempo and escalating personnel costs will make diversion of funds to augment the shipbuilding account very unlikely.

Expanding the number of ships to reach 313 or more will take a very long time. Normal practice is for the services to tell themselves and industry that they will achieve most of their goals in the out years-the time after the current six-year planning period. But experience shows that those wonderful years of promised plenty seldom materialize. Projecting what the Navy will do must be based on evaluating its recent actions rather than future promises. That means looking at the past several years of the shipbuilding plan and just the first two or three years of the current budget. This reveals that ship construction authorizations have averaged five to seven vessels annually. Factoring in ship life expectancies of 30-35 years, it is clear the Navy is on a steady course to achieve a force structure of around 200 ships within the next decade. Thus it should not have been surprising to see earlier this year the Navy's immediate shipbuilding plan suddenly nosedive from 60 ships over the next six years down to 45—a stunning reduction that elicited barely a murmur on Capitol Hill.

The Way Forward

If the Navy is going to achieve its goals for the future Fleet, it must acknowledge the problem and change the way it procures ships. While calls for change may ring a bit hollow and expedient in the current political environment, simply making more convincing arguments will not get us out of this hole. Fixing the problem means doing things differently. Fortunately, it appears the Navy has already started to put the rudder over. The new approach has to be multi-faceted—no single policy alteration is sufficient to give the needed result. So what are we talking about?

  • Requirements . The starting point is the requirements scrub. Too many vessels are designed to combat every threat predicted to exist over the next two decades. We cannot afford that luxury. There are many very capable systems in U.S. and international industry, with solid upgrades expected that don't have to challenge the rules of physics to succeed. This does not by any means imply that we should halt our R&D programs. But we need to curb our ambitions in the requirements process, understand the cost implications of advanced systems, ensure we have fully developed plans and drawings before cutting steel, and be absolutely ruthless in controlling upgrades and system changes. Insisting that any change in system requirements to an authorized program requires the personal approval of the Secretary of the Navy would be a good start.
  • Realistic Costing and Program Management . A recent Government Accountability Office report points to the difficulty the Navy has experienced in balancing technical sophistication, advanced mission requirements, and an unrealistically tight cost and schedule budget. According to the GAO report, "Across the shipbuilding portfolio, executing programs within cost and schedule estimates remains problematic, largely because of unexecutable business cases that allow programs to start with a mismatch between scope and resources." Candor, realistic cost and schedule projections, hard-nosed program management by the Navy, and an absolute requirement to confront bad news early are the essential elements of a solution.
  • High-Low Mix . Maintaining a balanced force means the Navy needs both capabilities and numbers. We can only get that with a high-low mix. Numbers remain important, because no matter how capable a ship is, it can only be in one place at a time. The most advanced and capable vessels, such as guided-missile cruisers and guided-missile destroyers, form the basis of fleet protection in high-threat scenarios - they are the hedge against a major conflict. But their expense also limits their numbers. So the Navy also needs smaller, less-capable ships that can handle medium to small threats and still be inexpensive enough to be bought in larger numbers. Unfortunately, the minimal combat capability of the baseline littoral combat ship (LCS), combined with its escalating costs, means that this entire low-end solution needs to be re-examined. A small, multi-purpose follow-on to the Oliver Hazard Perry FFG-7 class may be what the Navy needs and can afford.
  • Carriers . These have a special role in this mix. Studies of capability versus cost and tonnage consistently favor the larger ships. It has also been demonstrated repeatedly that the CVN is a fundamental ingredient in our nation's arsenal whether the threat is of limited or exaggerated scope. While it is among our costliest systems, it is also irreplaceable. The key here is to be able to explain clearly the rationale for the current CVN requirement as a function of wartime employment, crisis surge, and normal forward-deployment requirements.
  • Tonnage and Cost Growth . Over the past several decades, we have seen the tonnage and cost of ships increase dramatically. The Navy's shipbuilding woes are closely tied to this development, and no program illustrates this better than the DDG-1000. From the time of the Arsenal Ship, through the DD-21 and DD(X), to the current DDG-1000, this vessel has been the poster child of the principle that better is the enemy of good enough. While the DDG-1000 is a wonderful platform for the implementation of an impressive array of new technologies, the specter of a 14,000-ton destroyer costing up to $5 billion a copy is unaffordable. Though not final, recent Navy decisions to limit the class to just two or three vessels and to re-examine the cost, rationale, and alternatives to the LCS are timely, justified, and excellent signs that the Navy has begun to look for realistic solutions to its force-structure dilemma.
  • Marine Corps Support . This mission is another fundamental. The number and mix of vessels needed to provide the requisite lift for the Marines has changed significantly in the past two decades. The ships have become larger and more expensive, while at the same time, the number required to deliver a given amount of lift has declined. Because amphibious ships are employed in combination, they should be judged on the capability of the expeditionary strike group or amphibious ready group as a whole rather than the size and cost of individual units. The Navy also needs to re-examine its Naval Surface Fire Support requirements. One of the driving forces behind the growth of the DDG-1000 design was its long-range Advanced Gun System (AGS). Certainly, the Navy needs to improve its ability to bring precision offshore artillery support to our ground forces ashore and increase the weight of fire with the 155-mm projectile. But the quest for ever greater ranges to meet an arbitrary requirement, regardless of the cost, becomes self destructive. With the downsizing of the DDG-1000 program to just two or three ships, the Navy needs to find additional platforms for the AGS, make the introduction of long-range (i.e., 50-mile) 5-inch guided projectiles a major priority, and then backfit this capability onto every ship in the DDG-51 class.
  • Littoral Operations Forces . While the Navy must clearly have forces able to deal with high-end threats, a major part of its future operations will be in lower threat areas, especially coastal and riverine environments. We need limited forces capable of supporting this mission. The Navy already has excellent riverine craft. But we need a class of up to 20 smaller coastal vessels (less than 500 tons) that can operate close to shore for up to seven to ten days, have credible combat capability, and have a reasonable price. Many navies currently operate offshore patrol vessels that could serve as examples. In fact, this would seem a perfect candidate for a common platform (with service-tailored combat systems) with the Coast Guard, which has important complementary responsibilities in this mission area.

Submarines. Because of the cost and impact involved in interruption of production of submarines and their nuclear reactors, plus the vessel's proven value in a myriad of missions, the numerical goal for SSNs in our force mix may be an issue, but the need to sustain a building rate is not, nor is their growing importance in overcoming potential access-denial campaigns, particularly in the western Pacific. We need a multiyear submarine building program that can meet our operational requirements, keep our critical industrial base alive, and still maintain pressure to further reduce cost.

Other Considerations


  • Nuclear-powered cruisers are attractive but currently unaffordable even with the persuasive advantage of not having to pull up to the fuel pump.
  • Building good hulls here or elsewhere and adding weapon systems after the fact is painful—as in the DD-963—but must be considered.
  • Fleet Rehabilitation and Modernization (FRAM) is a concept that also has some appeal even though many would not choose this option for openers.
  • The Coast Guard's National Security Cutter is an option the Navy should examine despite the need for significant militarization. Its characteristics (4,300 tons with USCG systems, 418-feet long, 21-foot draft) are attractive, a combined buy with Coast Guard would offer economies of scale, and we would have some choices as to how to arm it properly, even though we cannot turn it into a DDG.
  • Not every ship needs to do every mission well, but we all should agree we don't want ships that have no legs and limited uses just so we can achieve a larger number.
  • Other allied navies have similar challenges. We need to examine foreign designs, which could be built or assembled in the United States with our own systems.
  • Minimizing crew size is a worthy goal, but we need to be realistic. Experience shows that promises of meeting the important requirements of maintenance and upkeep with outside organizations simply have not worked. Make sure each ship has enough crew members to fight and maintain her.

A Positive Outlook?

None of the above suggests either the total number or mix of surface combatants we should seek, but these old and new ideas may be worth considering as we plot the way ahead. At this writing, the Navy plans to assemble a group from across the service to begin developing its new force structure for the Quadrennial Defense Review. This effort will be based on the new maritime strategy, the August 2008 Global War Game, previous analyses, and much experience. It is a very positive and timely sign.

Make no mistake about it—there is a crisis of confidence with regard to the Navy's shipbuilding plans. This situation is partly self-inflicted and exacerbated by factors not of the Navy's making.

The Navy has a great story to tell, and our naval forces consistently do a tremendous job where it counts. Our people remain our best asset and stand ready to provide insight and imagination to help address this challenge. Our new maritime strategy is sound and reflects our changing world. American industry can do anything it is asked to do, but we must ratchet up our business practices to get what we pay for. Our solution must include top-level recognition of the need to change the way the Navy buys and builds its ships. The fiscal outlook is daunting, but our best chance to improve it is through our performance in requirements determination and execution, not simply at sea. We can and will do this, but not before we acknowledge that it is not getting done now.

Rear Admiral Houley is a retired submarine officer with extensive experience in acquisition, science and technology, test and evaluation, and change management. He has worked in private industry, was the first Director of Defense Reform in Office of the Secretary of Defense, and is now a consultant with The Spectrum Group in Alexandria, Virginia.

Rear Admiral Stark is a retired surface warfare officer, who spent his career in destroyers and commanded an FFG, a CG, and NATO's Standing Naval Force Atlantic. He was President of the Naval War College and currently consults with The Spectrum Group.




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