A recent Defense News article paints a positive picture of Navy efforts to prioritize “readiness” (a subjective term at best), while at the same time benefitting from additional shipbuilding requested and paid for by Congress and not the service. The chief evidence for improved readiness seems to be the reduction in the number of deferred maintenance “days” from 7,000 to less than 3,000, with the promise of more reductions in the coming fiscal year.
That is good, but it alone does not reverse a downward slide for more than 30 years in the strategic thinking, size, and overall readiness of the Navy. The stark fact remains that the only “ready” ships in the fleet are those on deployment and those enroute to relieve them. Actual surge capacity is extremely low. For the 1990–91 Desert Shield/Desert Storm mission, five aircraft carriers were surged while two others on deployment were allowed to return home as scheduled. In 2003 for the second Iraq War, six carriers were surged. Several classes of combatants and support vessels have been retired without replacement, and the overall size of the fleet has plunged from 529 ships in 1991 to fewer than 290 at present.
The analogy of driving one’s car past the maintenance-needed mileage sticker in the windshield works well here. One can drive thousands of miles past that number and the car still runs fine. Bring it back to the dealer, however, 20,000 to 30,000 miles past the recommended maintenance point and the costs mount in terms of additional repairs and spare parts required to keep the vehicle in optimum condition. One can take one’s car to the bargain-basement repair shop for quick, cheap repairs and prolong deterioration a bit longer, but inevitably the car reaches a point of being “beyond economical repair,” a status some of the Navy’s aging cruisers and amphibious warfare ships now find themselves in.
Today’s ships, like today’s cars, are complex electrical, mechanical, and electronic machines. The ships built now, such as the flight III variant of the Arleigh Burke–class destroyer, are capable but complicated ships requiring more maintenance than previous classes. The Navy has become an all-high-end fleet, and more difficult to sustain than the high/low fleet of the late Cold War. A 2006 RAND report found, “the Navy’s desire for larger and more-complex ships (like the DDG-51) has been a significant cause of ship cost escalation in recent decades.” Ships become “power dense” (a ratio of power generation capability to the ship’s weight without fuel, crew or food aboard) when they field larger numbers of mission systems (weapons, sensors and support equipment, as does the DDG-51.
The problem is that these power-dense, more expensive ships are the only types being built. The attempt to create a lower-cost surface combatant in the littoral combat ship (LCS) has not been successful because of a variety of factors, but perhaps most from trying to force too many revolutionary systems and concepts into a ship supported by an acquisition system that best supports evolutionary systems. The failure of LCS to deploy in numbers and take on more low-end missions has left the larger, more expensive, power-dense ships to carry more burdens. Studies have suggest the Navy had not planned for this in the DDG-51 maintenance plan, as historical Navy maintenance funding remains below what the technical manuals say the Navy should provide. Older, more complex ships will have greater costs over time.
Given these expanding costs, is it a surprise that the Navy wants to retire its remaining cruisers and older amphibious warfare vessels? The Navy wanted to retire some of cruisers a decade ago, knowing that their aging hulls were not ideal or cost-effective to modernize. These figures and those of the DDG-51 and LSD-41 classes represent decades of deferred maintenance that will not be overcome in the period of a single Chief of Naval Operations’ four-year term of office.
The Story of Decreasing Readiness
Over this entire period, the Navy has continued to support about 100 deployed ships a year. It is a lot easier to do this with more than 529 ships (1991) than with about 290 today. The constant drumbeat of long deployments to deter Iran or North Korea, support counterpiracy missions off Somalia in the 2000s and 2010s, or conduct strike missions in Southwest Asia have combined to put a lot more “wear and tear” on the fleet. Combined with multiple cases of deferred maintenance, this rapidly drove the fleet past the point of short-term recovery.
The 2010 Balisle Report on surface force readiness starkly outlined the fleet’s decline over the 1990s and 2000s, particularly in terms of failed Board of Inspection and Survey (InSurv) reports and in the rapid dismantling of intermediate repair facility infrastructure that might have improved fleet readiness in the past decade. The report boldly stated, “The panel is in full agreement that surface force material readiness is in decline,” and that the continued trends were, “all in the wrong direction.” Specifically, the number of InSurv failures was increasing.
The Fleet Response Plan (FRP) of 2003 was already in service at the time of the Balisle Report. Its goal of having six aircraft carriers deployable on short notice (as was the need for the Gulf Wars in 1990 and 2003) upset traditional patterns of deployment, training, rest, and repair. The FRP changed all this:
Instead of predictable, lockstep, 6-month deployments to pre-determined regions in support of the Global Naval Forward Presence Policy, the Flexible Deployment Concept allows units that have attained high readiness to embark on deployments of varied duration in support of specific national priorities such as Homeland Defense, multi-national exercises, security cooperation events, deterrent operations, or prosecution of the Global War on Terrorism.
Unfortunately, the FRP was overcome not by a failure to surge six carriers but rather from a multiplicity of short-notice deployments that, along with the reduction in maintenance facilities and time for the work, further eroded fleet readiness. A 2010 Center for Naval Analyses (CNA) report described the Navy of that period as at a “tipping point” where “current strategies based on combat credible, forward presence are unsustainable.”
The effort to fix FRP in the wake of the Balisle Report and CNA Tipping Point study with the Optimized Fleet Response Plan (ORFP) from 2014 has not fixed any of the problems identified in the 2010 reports. The ORFP also promised “predictable deployment and readiness cycles,” but noted that the original plan had been overcome by excessive, combatant commander requirements for forward-deployed forces in the period 2010–14. When briefing OFRP to the House Armed Services Committee, the Navy, however, noted that:
1. We will be unable to retain our best Sailors due to high OPTEMPO and schedule unpredictability. Our Sailors also want to know that they are being given the resources to do their job.
2. We will be unable to reach the expected service life of our ships, submarines, and aircraft. Additionally, degraded material readiness leads to reduced warfighting readiness, ineffective training, and increased safety risks.
3. We will be unable to preserve the required industrial support base.
4. We will continue to have inefficient maintenance/modernization planning and scheduling, which will lead to unacceptable/unaffordable cost overruns, training entitlement impacts and deployment delays.
5. We will continue to consume our contingency surge capacity for routine operations, and it will be more challenging to meet Defense Strategic Guidance (DSG) objectives.
The same problems of constant high-demand signals against shrinking resources (fleet size) and increasing modernization costs (especially of aging AEGIS and amphibious warfare ships) noted in 2010 and 2015 are rapidly driving down the Navy’s current overall readiness to conduct war past initial engagements in the Indo-Pacific.
None of these critiques speak ill of CNO Admiral Michael Gilday’s efforts over fewer than four years. Reducing the fleet maintenance backlog and getting lawmakers to concentrate on the readiness of current ships are major accomplishments. That said, a few positive efforts only slowed the decline. The current low level of readiness is 30-plus years in the making, and no one Navy Secretary, CNO, Congressional caucus, or presidential administration can be trotted out and “held accountable.”
A New Approach
The Navy needs to undertake a bottom-up review of strategy, fleet size and design, and budgetary planning all at the same time—not piecemeal as has been the case with multiple force designs over the past 10 years. This review must be total in the same way that an investigation team ruthlessly investigates everything on a ship that has suffered a major mishap. It is appropriate to do this review now as the Navy has shifted from a primary focus of supporting ground conflicts in Southwest Asia to one emphasizing competition with China and Russia. Just as the 1993 Bottom Up review document set the stage for the post–Cold War U.S. Defense strategy through 9/11, a Navy bottom-up review can lay a foundation for a new period of competition with China and Russia under the National Defense Strategy.
It must start with a comprehensive maritime strategy that details how the Navy will accomplish its missions as specified by the National Security and National Defense strategies in war and peace. The CNO should lead the strategy effort, with support from the numbered fleet commanders who will lead joint maritime component commands for the regional commanders in conflict. While the CNO is not an operational commander, a maritime strategy produced by the CNO’s staff (OpNav) would be directly based on operational leaders’ inputs and serve to inform the President, Secretary of Defense, and the rest of the operational chain of command in how the Navy might be globally employed as opposed to operations in just one theater, even one as large as the Indo-Pacific.
The strategy should directly inform fleet size and design and delineate appropriate risks clearly so that no member of Congress or Presidential administration should be confused as to the risks of authorizing less than what the strategy demands. The fleet force design and size should have a detailed budget plan that shows the way to reaching the appropriate force structure and size and how the Navy intends to sustain the force over time. Five- and ten-year reviews should also be undertaken by all concerned (Congress, the Navy, and the Presidential administration) to ensure the strategy and force design remain on track or change as required.
The ship designs that the strategy and force design recommend must also be maintainable and robust. The LCS-1 variant combining gear as designed is an example of a system that has not proven robust and has created greater maintaining costs than planned. The open architecture combat systems on newer AEGIS combatants on the other hand have improved maintainability as they are easier to both maintain and upgrade than past versions. Fragile systems are especially vulnerable to overuse and are more likely to prevent costly maintenance and repair situations that over time result in higher costs. Maximizing maintainability, especially in austere, forward deployed combat missions will be essential to preserving Navy readiness.
The forthcoming Commission on the Future of the Navy that was agreed to in the 2023 NDAA would be a good forum from which to begin a bottom-up review of maritime strategy, fleet size, force design, and the maintenance and readiness of that force as they are interrelated. The first page of the Commission’s responsibilities states it will examine “An evaluation and identification of a structure for the Navy that has the depth and scalability to meet current and anticipated requirements of the combatant commands,” and, “An evaluation and identification of combatant command demand and fleet size, including recommendations to support readiness; training; routine ship maintenance; personnel; forward presence; depot-level ship maintenance; and fleet modernization.” The Commission certainly has the remit to begin a bottom-up review, and the decades of deferred maintenance on Navy cruisers, destroyers, and amphibious ships ought to be one of its first tasks.
Today’s Presidential administration, Congress, and naval leaders (civilian and military) must undertake this review now to stem the decline of the Navy and restore real, sustained combat capability to the service ahead of any Chinese aggression against Taiwan or other U.S. ally or partner in the Indo-Pacific.