Former Navy Secretary John Lehman stepped forward today and laid out the Navy’s shipbuilding problems in stark terms. The service looks “incompetent in the manner of managing its resources,” he said Friday at a Hudson Institute seminar on the Navy.
“Clearly, we have a problem, a deep endemic problem,” said Lehman, who led the Navy during the Reagan administration. “Acquisition problems are the most important issue facing the Navy,” he added. But these problems can be fixed by vigorous leadership and Defense Secretary Robert Gates’ choice of Ray Mabus to be Navy Secretary may be just the fix needed: “I genuinely believe we have a real opportunity today with the appointment of Ray Mabus. Every indication is that he gets it. He gets it.”
And vigorous leadership from the service secretary is exactly what the Navy needs, Lehman said: “With that kind of leadership it should all fall into place.”
But until Mabus settles in and clear and defensible national and naval strategies have been stated, Lehman said he would not dare go before Congress to ask for more money to build a larger and more vigorous navy, as he believes must happen. “I would never go before Congress in present circumstances and ask for more money. It’s just pissing down a rat hole. Until the Navy looks competent and has its acquisition programs for ship and aircraft and weapons under control, you are not going to see increases. You are going to continue to see cuts,” he said.
Lehman said the “first thing” the acquisition community needs to do “is stop the change orders and freeze the design.” Also, the service must stop rotating acquisition personnel every 18 months and keep them in place for at least four years and ensure they have the authority they require to take decisions and make them stick.
But even if vigorous leadership begins to turn the enterprise around, the current shipbuilding program is not sustainable, the Congressional Budget Office’s lead naval analyst, Eric Labs, told the Hudson conference. The service’s 30-year shipbuilding program needs up to an additional $12 billion a year over its current funding levels of roughly $14 billion to build the 313-ship service. To put that in perspective, a straight line projection shows that the service needs up to $800 billion to build that fleet and is likely to get about $450 billion over the 30 years, based on current funding levels.
While platforms are an indicator of power, a sharp focus on ships and just how many to build may not be the most effective analysis of US strength, Rep. Joe Sestak (D-Penn.) told the Hudson audience. Instead, Sestak offered what several experienced observers said was a new analysis of the Navy’s best size. He took into account improved knowledge of the enemy gained through cyber capabilities. The country, Sestak said, could live with a fleet of 240 ships, including nine aircraft carriers and 40 submarines. For example, instead of using “a billion dollar sub” to track North Korean ships, the US could use “sensors and satellites.”
Sestak, a former senior Navy officer, said “it’s not the numbers. It’s the capabilities we have at sea.” Right now, the US Navy does not have the “right mix” of forces to do jobs such as tracking and killing terrorists. He gave the example of a “billion dollar” ship which stayed on station for four months to try and kill a single terrorist. Finally, the ship left the area. Later, the US deployed a UAV to spot the terrorist and killed him.
Most importantly, he said, the US must have capabilities to ensure dominance in the western Pacific Ocean.
One way to bolster US capabilities in the Pacific would be sea basing, the use of large mobile platforms to provide bases for ground troops and air assets, Sestak said.