Bipartisan agreements don’t come easily in Washington these days, but there’s a solid consensus about the costly new long-term shipbuilding plan that the Navy has outlined in the Fiscal Year 2014 budget: Almost no one believes that lawmakers will approve that much money in today’s penny-pinching environment.
The 30-year ship construction schedule envisions buying eight new battle-force ships in FY 14 and some 258 more between FY 15 and FY 43—ostensibly fulfilling the Pentagon’s goal of maintaining a Navy of about 300 ships over those years.
But the plan has its skeptics. The respected Congressional Research Service (CRS) points out that, like previous such outlines, the new one would not provide enough ships to support the Navy’s 306-ship goal during most of the three-decade period, and would produce periodic shortages in cruisers, destroyers, attack submarines, and amphibious ships.
And both CRS and the non-partisan Congressional Budget Office (CBO) caution that, based on experience, there’s a serious risk that the program will require significantly more spending than the Navy estimates. CBO already has calculated that previous versions of the 30-year plan would cost an average of about 19 percent more than the Navy has estimated.1
Why the Navy’s 30-Year Plan Won’t Last
Indeed, CBO’s most conservative estimates suggest that the all-high-end force structure outlined in the Navy’s 30-year plan will require an average annual shipbuilding budget of almost $20 billion—higher than the $16 billion invested during each of the past 30 years, and at least 50 percent more than the $11 billion to $12 billion a year that Congress actually has provided.
As a result, the Navy is likely to have to reconsider its plan and come up with a substitute that ideally will tie strategy to the makeup of the Fleet to maintain the service’s ability to meet its global responsibilities and win the necessary support in Congress.
Here are three broad options that might help the Navy do the job (Note: All three of these options use the most conservative figures from the most recent CBO analysis of the Navy’s shipbuilding plan):
• A “restricted-budget” plan that continues the current path, retaining the high-end capabilities—such as aircraft carriers, large amphibious vessels, attack submarines, and guided-missile destroyers (DDGs)—but slows their acquisition, postpones the replacement of the LSD(X) amphibious ships well into the future, and curtails the construction of Littoral Combat Ships (LCSs) at 24 or 28 vessels, with the majority of LCSs focused on mine-countermeasures duties. In other words, this option would simply buy less with less.
• On top of the restricted-budget option, design and build a fleet of inexpensive, corvette-sized ships to carry out specific, narrow missions involving gunfire support, antisubmarine warfare, land attacks, and missile attacks, and a force of conventional submarines to be used in mining, blockading, or sea denial. (In some cases, the United States would have to lease a foreign design and adapt it for domestic construction.)
• Consider combining the restricted-budget plan with alternative options to buy combinations of smaller submarines, missile-launching craft, and mine-warfare ships.
Although the calculations here are rough, the restricted-budget plan would result in a fleet of only 234 ships over the next 10 to 12 years, with average annual spending on shipbuilding and conversion held to $13.7 billion rather the than $19.9 billion that the Navy’s current all–high–end plan requires. (Note: Because the critical changes must be made over the next 12 years, these estimates are based on a roughly 25-year timeframe rather than the traditional 30-year span that the Navy plan encompasses. These shipbuilding decisions won’t fully translate into introduction and widespread use in the Fleet until about FY 35.)
Here Are the Details
The “restricted-budget” plan. Without a major course correction and without an almost inconceivably large increase in shipbuilding funds funds—say, some 50 percent more than the Navy is currently receiving—this is the direction the Navy is likely to head if it continues down the high–end–only path it is on today.
This slimmed-down version calls for stretching out the construction time for the aircraft carriers; building 68 DDGs rather than 80; starting construction of the new simpler “improved” version of the Virginia-class attack submarines sooner than planned (in order to maintain total numbers); decommissioning the LSD-41 class without any replacement; and halting production of the LCS by FY 20, providing for only 24 or 28 new LCSs rather than 55, as the Navy has proposed.2
The Navy’s stated goal of 90 destroyers presumes a 40-year service life, but the CBO report argues that even if planners assume only a 30-year life for guided-missile destroyers, under the current build plan the Navy will end up with only 60 Arleigh-Burke-class DDGs in FY 35. The estimate of 90 destroyers is unrealistic, and with the expected reductions in force-structure even 68 may be on the high end. As VADM Tom Copeman, Commander, Naval Surface Forces, remarked at a 16 January 2013 Surface Navy Association Symposium, “…The surface Navy may need to sacrifice ships in the coming budget battles [by reducing current ship numbers through early retirements] to ensure the ones it keeps are fully manned and equipped.”
Slowing the build-rate for the 11 aircraft carriers—to one every seven years instead of one every five years—would raise the overall pricetag, but it would reduce the annual cost, a prime concern for congressional budget planners. (The seven-year timeframe is the estimated minimum required to maintain the industrial base). The current 11-carrier force eventually would shrink, but not before FY 35. The total would drop to eight by FY 48 and stabilize at seven after FY 59. The bet is that the wider use of unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) will reduce the need for large-deck carriers over the next 50 years.
With regard to destroyers, the budget-restricted plan would slow production of the next round of DDGs (Flight III), resulting in 10 new ships instead of the 22 that the Navy now plans.
In the anticipated fiscal crunch, the Navy would sacrifice the expensive LSD(X) follow-on, and the amphibious force would fall from a 33 ships—already below the 30-year plan’s requirements—to a mere 22 ships. This is the biggest drawback to the restricted-budget plan, and it begs for a creative offset.
That said, the restricted-budget scenario leaves construction plans for auxiliary vessels such as combat logistic ships, support ships, tenders, command ships, and survey ships intact. Overall spending for such vessels is sizable, but failure to build these vessels would quickly impair the Navy’s ability to sustain the Fleet around the world.
The restricted-budget plan would require an annual shipbuilding budget of $13.7 billion and would result in a force of 234 ships by 2035.
The LSD(X) buy-back variant. As a conventional variation on the restricted-budget Navy planners might consider a follow-on dock landing ship class—perhaps a simpler commercial standard LPH-type vessel—one based on an LPD hull or a variant of a mobile landing platform. Adding 11 such ships to the restricted-budget plan would increase the average annual shipbuilding budget to $15.4 billion and result in 245 ships by 2035.
The SSBN conundrum. The cost of replacing the nation’s fleet ballistic-missile submarines (SSBNs) must be an exception in the Navy’s budget planning. The SSBN component alone would add another $6.5 billion to $7.5 billion a year to the ship-construction budget for more than a decade (FY 19 to FY 35), but the item must be considered separately, or the replacement cost will siphon off at least half of the regular ship-construction budget, and the size of the Navy’s force structure would shrink dramatically.
A study published by the U.S. Naval Postgraduate School warns that “a Navy of only large, multibillion-dollar warships will result in a smaller and smaller force that cannot fulfill its roles around the world. Some of those roles…can be handled by smaller ships in greater numbers.”3
Besides trimming back the size of the Navy’s all–high–end 30-year construction plan, Congress could bolster ship numbers and add overall capability by investing in a spate of inexpensive, special-purpose corvette-sized ships that might meet the nation’s strategic needs and bring the total number of ships in the Fleet closer to the 306 that the Navy desires. Many of these already are in use by allied navies. The United States could easily lease the designs, adapt them to American construction requirements, and build our own versions here. Eventually, American designers would come up with proposals of their own.
Here are some examples of alternative designs that might be considered:
Land attack corvette. A corvette- to frigate-sized ship with a primary mission of launching Tomahawk missiles to support a land attack.4 This version would minimize self-defense capabilities and other factors to help hold down costs. The corvettes would be smaller than the present-day LCS, built as single-purpose vessels, and equipped with components that are already in production, in order to help reduce costs. These ships would deploy with carriers and expeditionary strike groups, permitting Aegis destroyers to focus on the antiaircraft and antisubmarine missions. I propose building two a year at $500 million each between FY 23 and FY 33, for a total of 20.
Gunfire-support corvette. Corvette- to frigate-sized ship with a primary mission of providing gunfire support to Marine Corps or Army units ashore. Based on experiments with the present-day Zumwalt-class destroyer, the Navy could leverage at least two of the new six-inch advanced gun systems with as large a magazine as possible. A ship dedicated to this mission would greatly improve performance in this area while reducing overall Fleet risk. Planners also might consider combining the land attack and gunfire-support missions onto a single platform. I propose building one vessel a year at $500 million each between FY 23 and FY 35 for a total of 12.
Antisubmarine warfare corvette. Smallest possible corvette- to frigate-sized ship compatible with carrier strike groups and expeditionary strike groups and focused on antisubmarine warfare and equipped with hull- and towed-array sonar, helicopter, and vertical launching system and antisubmarine rockets. Ultimately, the Navy might build some 60 such ships, though probably only 42 could be available by FY 35. My plan would call for building three a year—at $500 million each—from FY 23 through FY 35 (and possibly beyond).
Missile craft. New ship in the fast–attack–craft to corvette-size range designed to operate forward and conduct littoral patrols and sea-control combat missions to help clear the waters ahead of strike groups. Each would be between 500 and 1,000 tons, armed with at least eight surface-to-surface missiles and deployed in squadrons of eight ships per sortie. Useful in restricted waters such as the Persian Gulf, Mediterranean Sea, and western Pacific Ocean. With such a low cost, the Navy could afford to place these ships in harm’s way and lose some vessels if necessary—an expected outcome when a force is seeking control of coastal waters. I propose a force of 64, building six a year, at $150 million each, from FY 23 to FY 34.
Conventional submarines. New diesel subs with air-independent propulsion systems would concentrate on mining, blockading, or conducting a World War II-style sea-denial campaign in strategic locations (Persian Gulf, Mediterranean Sea, and Western Pacific.) They would not operate with carrier support groups or conduct long-range independent operations. The Navy should consider buying 36 of these, although probably no more than 32 could be completed by FY 35. I propose leasing a foreign design at the start and then building two a year from FY 20 to FY 38 at a cost of $400 million to $500 million each.
The addition of all the vessels in the “corvette option” would require a shipbuilding budget on the order of $18.6 billion a year—only a billion or so lower than the Navy’s all–high–end plan—but it would result in a Fleet size that is more than 40 percent larger than the Navy’s plan would produce, with broader capabilities, to boot. The statistics: 404 ships total, for an annual shipbuilding investment of $18.6 billion.
If Navy strategists consider the corvette proposals too costly or ambitious, there are other alternatives that might be used in combination with the restricted-budget option.
Missile craft option. Adopt the restricted-budget plan and also build 64 new missile craft corvettes. This would provide tremendous coastal combat capability that would enable the Navy to expand its presence, increase its training, and improve its surface sea-control capability. This would be the least-expensive way to add more ships and show the flag. Annual shipbuilding cost (including the restricted-budget plan): $14.6 billion a year. Total number of ships: 298—essentially the goal that the Navy has set now.
Sub-heavy option. Adopt the restricted-budget plan and built 36 small conventional submarines. It would be a relatively inexpensive way to boost our coastal combat capability in mining, blockading, and more general sea-denial. Estimated spending: $14.7 billion a year. Total number of ships: 266.
Missile and sub option. Buy both lower-end forces and conventional submarines and expand both kinds of capabilities. Estimated spending: $15.6 billion a year. Total number of ships: 330.
Missile, sub, and corvettes option. Buy 64 missile craft, 36 conventional submarines, and 24 corvettes that would add land-attack and naval gunfire support capability. Total option cost: $17.1 billion a year. Brings total number of ships to 354.
Mine–warfare–focused option. Postpone construction of new types of vessels in the restricted-budget plan and instead increase emphasis on both mine countermeasures and offensive mining.5 Devote most of the 24 to 28 LCSs to mine countermeasures and increase spending to update and expand our mine inventory and capability. If the Navy did nothing else, this option would provide the biggest bang for the buck. And it would tie in well with other low-cost options that would add submarines to the U.S. inventory.
Shaping the Budget to Reality
Ideally, the Navy’s shipbuilding program should be based on a particular strategy—that in turn would lead to a ship-construction budget Congress would support. In practice, however, more often the Navy ends up developing a strategy based on the number and kinds of ships it’s likely to have over the coming decades. That’s not always bad, but it too often produces a mismatch between strategy and the Fleet’s capability, which means that we are not always able to accomplish our strategic goals.
Experience shows there’s no perfect solution to that dilemma. By itself, increasing the number of ships in the Navy is expensive, but starving the shipbuilding budget limits the Navy and potentially hobbles it. The alternatives proposed here aren’t just a plan to save money. They’re also designed to improve the capability of the Fleet and enable the Navy to meet the nation’s global responsibilities with simpler, less-expensive ships and weapons. Combining the large, costly vessels that everyone agrees should be part of the Navy’s inventory with increased numbers of smaller, single-mission ships can improve our capabilities.
Strategy and congressional support in the end should determine the decision, but the argument that “quantity has quality all its own” is a powerful one. Numbers count, and given the Navy’s infrastructure and training capability, Navy planners could squeeze a great deal out of simpler, less-expensive equipment while still providing enough vessels to meet the nation’s global responsibilities. No ship, no matter how good it is, can be in two—or three or four—places at once. And a lone, large multimission ship that is damaged cannot accomplish its mission. On the other hand, the loss of one of some number of smaller vessels leaves the commander with options to continue the fight.6
In any case, in the current budget environment, policymakers have little leeway to put such shipbuilding decisions off. In practical terms, the Secretary of the Navy and the Chief of Naval Operations have two years to determine what kind of Navy will be needed over the next several decades, and to make the case to Congress in a way that lawmakers will find convincing. What the House and Senate consistently provide for the next 10 to 12 years essentially will write that decision into stone.
Now is the time to consider alternatives that would get the job done better for the same or a lower cost.
1. “An Analysis of the Navy’s Fiscal Year 2013 Shipbuilding Plan,” Congressional Budget Office, July 2012.
3. “New Navy Fighting Machine: A Study of the Connections Between Contemporary Policy, Strategy, Sea Power, Naval Operations, and the Composition of the United States Fleet,” U.S. Naval Postgraduate School, CAPT Wayne Hughes, U.S. Navy (Retired), principal investigator, August 2009. viii.
4. CDR Phillip E. Pournelle, U.S. Navy, “The Rise of the Missile Carriers,” Proceedings, May 2013. 30–34.
5. Ronald O’Rourke, “Navy Littoral Combat Ship (LCS) Program: Background and Issues for Congress,” Congressional Research Service, 24 May 2013. 26–28.
6. CAPT Wayne Hughes, “A Durable Strategy for East Asia,” Information Dissemination website, 25 June 2012. LT Jimmy Drennan, U.S. Navy, “Strength in Numbers: The Remarkable Potential of (Really) Small Combatants,” Information Dissemination website, 15 April 2013. 3–5. The website was hacked in 2013 and was not available at press time.