SNA: The Navy’s happy warrior

Navy Undersecretary Bob Work said he was 'psyched' about the future and mocked skeptics of the service's plans.

Navy Undersecretary Robert Work mocked skeptics of the future fleet on Thursday and expounded boisterously on his belief that, far from a diminution in American seapower, the 21st century will deliver it to new heights.

Work told the Surface Navy Association that all the hand-wringing on Capitol Hill and among think tanks about the number of ships the Navy will wind up with misses the point. The ships will be much more capable than they’ve ever been and the Navy will have new systems and sensors, such as its Broad-Area Maritime Surveillance aircraft.

“People say, ‘Is it going to be 313 ships or 310?’” Work said in an anxious voice. Then he declared: “I don’t care! We’ve got BAMS!” He showed a chart with overlapping circles where ships, BAMS, and the Navy’s new P-8 Poseidon aircraft will be able to cover more area when they come online.

“How many ships would you need to maintain this kind of domain awareness? It’s a lot bigger than a 600-ship navy, I can guarantee you that,” Work said. “We span the globe!”

Work sounded like someone who has spent months absorbing and processing critics’ attacks on the Navy, and was eager to present an alternative storyline that everyone was missing the point.

“This is not something where we need to say, ‘Oh my goodness, we don’t have 600 ships!’ We don’t need them. This is a better fleet. I would take that fleet over that third-generation fleet of 600 ships” – though he admitted he’d prefer 100 attack submarines.

Work brushed off criticisms of the littoral combat ship: “Yeah, it burns a lot of fuel. We have refuelers,” he said. So the Navy might struggle with the ships’ crewing – he pointed out that critics also worried about sending the Oliver Hazard Perry-class frigates to sea with 185 sailors.

“We didn’t get that exactly right,” he said. “Why cry about it?”

LCS, new destroyers, amphibious ships and other systems, including the Navy’s planned integrated fire-control system, its SM-6 missile, and the new reach of the P-8, BAMS and E-2D Hawkeye means the future of the U.S. Navy is so bright that Work said he was “psyched.”

“This is a good time to be a [surface warfare officer] – and if you aren’t excited, you don’t have a pulse.”

Naval expert Norman Polmar stood up and asked Work whether they would see a new, next-generation replacement for the Tomahawk cruise missile in their lifetimes. Absolutely, Work said – not only that, the Navy also is moving along in its bid to develop a next-generation anti-ship missile to replace the Harpoon.

Navy officials are at the point in their analysis of alternatives where they’re deciding between one of two ways to go, Work said: “Slow and stealthy or high and fast. We’re just about ready to complete the AoA – in your in my lifetime we’ll see follow-on to Harpoon and be very effective, and out-stick everybody out there.”

Work admitted that he might be accused of “talking nirvana,” and he acknowledged to reporters afterward that part of Washington’s emphasis on Navy fleet numbers was because of the Navy itself. Two consecutive chiefs of naval operations spent years selling 313 as at least the minimum number of warships the Navy must have, but as we saw Wednesday from Senator Susan Collins, even the Navy’s own projections aren’t very optimistic about that.

Work said he thought the Navy should begin trying to tell Congress a broader story about the Navy as “a total integrated battle force,” as opposed to just a simple number of ships, but he and other top Navy leaders this week did not concede the service should change its official requirements.