Once eager, the Navy now bides its time

The future will deliver advanced new ships, but also new risks, costs and long-term worries.

Just a few years ago, a senior Navy admiral sat down in the Pentagon with the usual rogue’s gallery of defense hacks, including your correspondent, and talked about the future of the littoral combat ship.

Critical, essential, revolutionary, game-changing – the best thing to hit the ocean since the surfboard, he said, in so many words. At the time, the Navy planned to down-select from the two then-competing designs to just one, using the miracle of competition to save on a program that had already busted its budget projections. Still, the Navy would have one or two copies of the losing design it had already bought.

Next question: Should the fleet maintain just those one or two white elephants with their own unique maintenance needs, combat systems, training requirements and operational peculiarities? What, he was asked, would it do with the losers after the down-select?

The Navy would keep them and deploy them, the admiral said: “I need the ships.”

His onetime boss, then-Chief of Naval Operations Adm. Vern Clark, put his support for LCS even more emphatically during his tenure: “I need them yesterday.”

But at the Navy’s biggest annual trade show this week, that onetime urgency has evaporated.

Neither LCS nor the Navy’s behemoth USS Zumwalt destroyer is set to do a real deployment before 2016, if then – that’s when LCS is supposed to get its important anti-submarine warfare kit and the Zumwalt will reach “initial operational capability.” An optimistic view is that it’ll be a banner year for the Navy, with two important new classes joining the fleet for the first time in a long while. Plus there’ll be new LCS ships popping in all the time, even if they might not have their mission equipment.

A pessimist, however, might point out that the dates for the arrival of the two new ship types are suspiciously close to the tail of the  future years defense plan, near the event horizon into which big programs sometimes vanish. Their arrival also is scheduled for a time when many people in a position of leadership today, from President Obama on down through the Building, no longer will be.

It’s difficult to know what to make of today’s leaders’ equanimity about waiting for the ships of the future. With the significant exception of Navy Undersecretary Robert Work, nobody in the service seems to be jumping up and down with excitement about LCS. Nobody says, “Damn the torpedoes, get the Independence out to the Gulf of Aden and let’s shoot the hell out of some pirates!”

The silence about Zumwalt is even heavier. Work didn’t mention it once during his seapower revival on Wednesday – in past he has hinted that he’s not a fan – and few people outside the program itself seemed to take much interest this week. When Big Navy talks about “destroyers,” it talks about the restarted Arleigh Burke class and the promise of the Flight III line, complete with Air and Missile Defense Radar.

Slow and steady wins the race, the Navy might say. You can only build ‘em so fast. Crawl-walk-run. Rome, as we’ve learned from naval analyst LeBron James, wasn’t built in one day.

There’s also a sense, however, that today’s Navy is regretting its inheritance. Before they even enter service, DDG 1000 and LCS could both already be artifacts of a bygone era, much as the Ticonderoga-class cruisers are artifacts of the early 1980s. Contrast the two new ship classes with the rhetoric of today’s leaders.

“Perfect will not work in the future,” Chief of Naval Operations Adm. Jonathan Greenert said Tuesday. “It’s got to be good enough.” Meanwhile, he is “buying back” sea billets to reverse the dip in crew sizes; increasing live training events and generally trying to make sure the Navy can “shoot straight.” Greenert wants to explore “common hulls” to save money and expects tough talk from vendors about requirements discipline.

This is the same Navy that’s going to take delivery of two new classes bristling with advanced accessories; with crews so small they’ll rely on contractor-supported maintenance; and brook no “good enough” compromises in the pursuit of one high-end characteristic – speed for LCS and firepower for Zumwalt.

The Rumsfeld-era Pentagon that produced them is long gone. Listening to Greenert, the Navy of 2012 might not go ahead with either program if it were considering them today.

Too late, though; they’re in motion. The origins of the ships lie as much in politics as naval need: DDG 1000 was the deliverance of Bath Iron Works and the Navy’s parallel LCS classes brought it protection from two overlapping congressional circles. Meanwhile, the service must mothball seven of its cruisers in order to afford the upkeep on the remainder of its surface force – a force without three “contractor-supported” Zumwalts or 55 LCSes.

Not yet having to pay those maintenance costs could another reason why today’s brass is content to let the new ships arrive in their good time. That could also be why the chiefs of the Air Force, Navy and Marine Corps seem content not to have an IOC date for the F-35 — they aren’t looking forward to paying an estimated $25,000 or more per flight hour.

There are even bigger problems lurking further in the future, including SSBN(X) – which Work admitted “keeps him up at night” – and the need to fund surface shipbuilding in time for the 2020s. If the Navy can’t get that right, it may barely have a fleet in the 2030s, Work warned.

Maybe it’s no surprise service officials don’t seem too eager for the future to arrive.