SNA: Analysts paint bleak picture of future Navy

A trio of experts said that unless the Navy changes course, its fleet will continue to shrink, age and could become obsolete.

A trio of experienced naval analysts laid out a bleak future for the Navy on Thursday based on their projections under current circumstances, and an even bleaker one under the threat of next year’s sequestration.

Congressional Budget Office shipbuilding expert Eric Labs said the Navy could lose between 16 and 24 ships from its 30-year plan if sequestration takes effect, depending on the Navy and CBO’s different assumptions.

If anything, Labs said, he was understating the potential consequences, because the shipbuilding projections assumed programs running perfectly and did not factor in the effects of increased unit costs after quantity reductions.

By 2025, that could leave the Navy with a fleet of 260 ships and decreasing, down from 285 today and well short of its onetime goal of at least 313 – although as Undersecretary Bob Work said in his early presentation, you shouldn’t get too hung up on numbers.

And even if sequestration doesn’t happen, as we heard from Maine Sen. Susan Collins on Wednesday, the Navy’s own projections for the future put it well short of its own goals for “large surface combatants,” i.e. cruisers and destroyers.

Work said during his presentation that the surface fleet would wind up with about  72 destroyers and 15 cruisers – that’s seven fewer than today’s force of 22 cruisers — then backtracked, said he “didn’t want to talk about numbers,” and asked to “rewind the tape.” He may inadvertently have let that detail slip before the actual DoD budget documents go to Congress in early February.

Labs, citing the Navy’s most recent official numbers, said that whatever the exact breakdown between cruisers and destroyers, the fleet would be 24 ships short of its own floor of 94 by the late 2020s. Its options for dealing with this are, at very least, tricky.

The Navy could add 24 more ships to its long-term plan, but “With this fiscal reality, that’s probably not going to happen,” Labs said. Or it could try a combination of adding fewer new ships and trying to stretch some of its existing ones to serve for 30, 35, 40 or even 45 years, but that would also be tough.

Navy officials will talk your ear off about how super-committed they are to getting serious about maintenance, improving sailor training, and generally squeezing the most life possible out of today’s fleet. It has taken on the religious quality of serious fads and trends (“transformation!”) in the defense world. But the fleet’s actual track record is decidedly mixed.

Labs said that the average life of the last 13 types of cruisers and destroyers retired by the Navy was 26 years. Three types reached the end of their service lives; four were retired for budgetary reasons and because they’d been outpaced by other ships; and six types – including the full Spruance class – were retired “strictly for budgetary reasons,” Labs said.

His colleague Ron O’Rourke, a veteran analyst with the Congressional Research Service, gave another glum assessment: Not only does the Navy have many significant problems in its near and medium future, he said, it has apparently given up trying to solve or even think about them.

For example, O’Rourke said he was mystified that the Navy apparently has no official plan to deal with its cruiser-destroyer gap. “This is the biggest shortfall for a major category of ship I have seen in my 28 years as naval analyst – this is huge,” he said. Alluding to Work’s presentation, O’Rourke said “This is bigger than what the network is going to make up – you can have the rest in place but this won’t compensate for that.”

O’Rourke — who stressed, as Labs did, that he was speaking for himself and not on behalf of his congressional agency – suggested the Navy needed to act quickly to figure out what to do about the cruiser-destroyer gap. By the time the shortfall begins to put a real strain on the force, it would be too late to begin building ships or making decisions to alleviate it.

“The only thing more remarkable to me than this shortfall is the amount of attention it receives in Navy presentations – it is completely absent from the Navy’s discussions,” O’Rourke said.

Also absent from the Navy’s official public consciousness these days is its onetime stress on “integrated electric drive” – the ship technology that the Navy used to sell to everyone as a game changer for tomorrow’s ships.

If warships of tomorrow are to field bigger, more powerful new radars, or even electric weapons such as lasers or rail guns, they’ll need more power and more cooling than today’s ships produce. The Navy once thought that required it to develop ships that could direct energy from their main engines to shipboard equipment, the way Captain Kirk could order the fictional Starship Enterprise to move power from its warp engines to its deflector shields.

Commercial and Military Sealift Command ships today have electric drives, but no U.S. warships, and O’Rourke observed that the Navy’s aspirations for a serious integrated electric drive seem to have died with its cancelled cruiser CG(X). But the threats of the future, including advanced anti-ship missiles, haven’t gone away, O’Rourke said.

So where, he asked, is the Navy’s “road map” for the shipboard power that tomorrow’s destroyers would need to support the advanced weapons of the future? O’Rourke described how Navy planners have told him that when or if those weapons actually ever materialize, the fleet can back-fit them to the ships available at the time, but O’Rourke was skeptical.

None of the warships under construction or on the drawing board today could support an electric weapon more powerful than about 100 kilowatts, he said – not enough juice to get the job done.

And, of course, O’Rourke mentioned the littoral combat ship. The Surface Force has got to do a better job selling itself to Congress and opinion-makers in Washington, he warned, because a lot of people view LCS has low-hanging fruit for spending hawks. It needs a “vision” or a “statement” to show people how everything fits together, as Work described.

Today, however, “The LCS is becoming a standard item around town among people coming up with proposals to cut the defense budgets,” O’Rourke said. He showed a list of think tanks “across the political spectrum,” as he put it, that have called for reductions or cancellations to LCS, including the Heritage Foundation, the Center for a New American Security and the National Security Network.

Author and shipbuilding expert Norman Polmar, for his part, seconded their skepticism. Continued shortcomings and problems with the ships will mean the Navy gives up on it sooner rather than later, he argued.

“We say we’re going to build 55 LCSes. Well, I’ll bet anyone here a whole dollar bill we’re not going to build 55.”