The U.S.Navy littoral combat ship USS Little Rock (LCS-9) is launched into the Menominee River in Marinette, Wisconsin (USA), on 18 July 2015 after a christening ceremony at the Marinette Marine Corporation shipyard.

Failure to Launch: Overambitious Plans for the U.S. Navy

In this piece, U.S. Navy Surface Warfare Officer Anthony Clay (pen name) examines the ambitious plans put forward by the Heritage Foundation to expand the size of the U.S. Surface Fleet to 400 ships, the Government’s plan to cap the expansion at 355 ships and the challenges facing this plan. Anthony reviews the current risks posed by the current under-sized fleet, and how the answer to the Navy’s problems most likely lies somewhere in the middle.

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Since the George W. Bush administration, American presidents have been seeking to determine the right number of ships to satisfy a constant demand of Naval operations amidst a decreasing capacity of ship yard availability and funds to keep the world’s largest Navy afloat. Under Presidents Bush and Obama that number sat between 300 and 330, which proved sufficient to conduct combat operations in the Persian Gulf and Arabian Sea in support of the two major theatres in Iraq and Afghanistan, but it also came with it a significant amount of risk for deferred maintenance and crew operational tempo.

With his focus on an expansion of the military – President Trump, along with the Department of the Navy – increased that number to 355. This would realistically provide the possibility for sufficient time in port to build regular maintenance cycles, and have enough capacity to conduct major operations in two different theatres simultaneously, which has become more of a reality with regular patrols in the Western Pacific, and a more constant presence in the Mediterranean. Regardless of the desired number, the currently serving 286 ships are not afforded such luxuries.

On 26 October 2018, the Heritage Foundation, a conservative think tank with an outsized influence in the Republican Party, released a study that called for increasing that number to 400. This would be a remarkably large incremental shift of priority. The additional fifty ships would come through some sources atypical for modern U.S. Navy shipbuilding. Only a modicum of increase would come by continuing production of the Arleigh Burke class Destroyers, and maintaining the cruiser fleet.  The meat of these gains would come mostly from the recommendation to increase from 11 to 12 Carrier Strike Groups and increase the number of Expeditionary Strike Groups (ESGs) by 3 to 15.

Carrier Strike Groups (CSGs) are the workhorse of U.S. Power Projection and are made up of a Carrier surrounded by Cruisers and Destroyers, which are lumped into the term CRUDES. ESGs are made up of an Amphibious Ready Group (ARG) and a complement of CRUDES as well. ARGs are comprised of Amphibious Assault Ship of the LHD or LHA ship types (small aircraft carriers capable of deploying Harriers and F-35s, in addition to helicopters), along with two smaller amphibious ships, LPDs and LSDs. The ESG construct was used regularly in the 1990s to the mid-2000s, but has fallen out of favour with the Navy, who have typically deployed the ARGs by themselves for the last decade. Regardless, the addition of a carrier, along with the increase in number of functional ESGs, would necessitate quite a few additional CRUDES assets.

The largest scale increases come from the drastic expansion of the small surface combatant force, including the Littoral Combat Ship (LCS), future Frigate descendants, and future Mine Countermeasures vessels. These warfare areas generate a lot of trouble for the Navy as it stands today.

The LCS is currently a hull without a mission. There are prospective uses for it with counter-narcotics smuggling and anti-piracy missions, but they have not successfully been integrated into larger strike group based roles. As LCS production shifts into Frigates (designated FFs) or Guided Missile Frigates (FFGs), the possibility of folding into the blue water fleet is more likely, although is still not a given. The biggest gap in the current ship building plan is found in the Mine Countermeasures fleet. The ageing Avenger class MCMs are getting long in the tooth, with consistently poor reliability. The MCM mission module for the LCS has failed to materialise in any meaningful way. A new dedicated platform is vital in the medium term as most of the trouble spots in the world have proven effective at conducting offensive and defensive mining.

So what is the problem then? The cost.

Under the Trump Administration, tax cuts have massively decreased federal revenue. And while the Heritage Foundation has estimated this will only cost $4-6 Billion per year on top of current ship building costs, there is a legacy of massive cost overruns in shipbuilding over the last 30 years. Funding of new warships will need to be passed by Congress years ahead of time, and would likely need additional taxes created or reinstated, especially after the midterms dividing control of the houses between the parties.

Development of new warships is a lengthy and costly process, and the Navy is behind in the hull development phase by several years. There are a decent number of platforms being constructed currently (CVN, LHA, LPD, DDG, SSN, two hull forms for LCS, T-AO, T-AKE, T-ESB, T-EPF) but there are currently no expectations for future combatants to start production, and no published designs for ships needed in the near term.

One way ballooning costs are being alleviated is through the continued reliance on the Arleigh Burke DDG hull type, which is nearing its 30th birthday with over 60 hulls in service, and the reuse of the LPD-17 hull on a next generation LSD. While these provide known and well developed platforms, they are hardly the advanced technology breeding grounds that will keep the U.S. as the preeminent naval power for future generations. This also means keeping older platforms like Cruisers and LSDs around for even longer. The Ticonderoga Class Cruiser is getting very old, and half of the hulls are planning on pushing their operational life expectancy out to 40+ years.

The largest costs though are blithely overlooked: manpower. The single most expensive piece of equipment on board a ship is a sailor. For every position created for a new ship, an entire career life-cycle has to be developed. This includes shore billets, training pipelines, funding for medical care and retirement, and all of the costs that are involved in the care and feeding of a sailor. I have also previously written about the issues in training officers in the surface fleet, and growing an officer corps – particularly one that has been struggling with retention for years – would not be without its challenges, particularly in the timelines contained in this report.

As a Surface Warrior, I am always of the belief that more ships would be better. There are many reasons that there should be progress in fielding higher numbers and more modern ships, and this report speaks to that. The Navy has fallen well short of ship building goals over the last 15 years, and the current fleet has been placed under significant stress. Despite this, 400 ships is a pipe dream without a concerted effort over many decades, and neither this administration nor the last four have shown the capability or confidence to bring forth that effort.

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Anthony Clay is a Surface Warfare Officer in the United States Navy who has served in every operational fleet, and most geographic Combatant Commands. He has an International Relations Degree from Tulane University and a Operations Research Masters Degree from the Naval Postgraduate School. Anthony is currently assigned to a staff posting within a numbered fleet.

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Image credits: U.S. Navy