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The Navy Says It Can’t Afford To Fully Modernize. So What Should It Give Up?

By News Creatives Authors , in Business , at August 3, 2021

The Navy League of the United States this week presented Washington’s premier annual exposition of all things maritime.

Called Sea-Air-Space 2021, the three-day event was a reminder that defending the nation is big business.

Over 300 vendors exhibited, and all the available space in the cavernous Gaylord National Resort & Convention Center was sold out.

Viewing the diverse wares being offered and the size of the crowds—thousands every day—a casual observer could easily conclude that happy days are here again for the nation’s sea services.

However, the recent pronouncements of Navy leaders suggest otherwise.

On the eve of the exposition, Chief of Naval Operations Admiral Michael Gilday observed, “We can’t really afford to have a Navy bigger than the one that we can sustain…Based on our current budget, I believe the analysis shows we can afford a fleet of around 300 ships.”

It wasn’t so long ago that the Trump administration was talking about building out the fleet to 500 manned and unmanned warships by 2045.

China currently has 360 warships in its own Navy, and looks likely to surpass 400 in the near future.

China’s maritime aspirations lie mostly close to home, whereas the smaller U.S. Navy is expected to police the entire globe.

If that sounds like an impossible task with barely 300 vessels, the Navy’s most recent internal budget guidance to the fleet suggests the mismatch between capabilities and strategy will be getting worse in the future.

That guidance states, “The Navy cannot afford to simultaneously develop the next generation of air, surface and subsurface platforms and must prioritize these programs balancing the cost of developing next generation capabilities against maintaining current capabilities.”

There’s nothing new about the budgetary tension between readiness and modernization, but the guidance seems to indicate that America’s Navy will not be able to stay ahead of China in all measures of military capability.

Something will have to go.

The CNO’s assessment that his service can’t afford to sustain a fleet of more than 300 warships, meaning manned warships, is a clear signal that force structure will be the first victim of budgetary constraints.

Even with the sizable budget increases of the Trump years and the more recent move of Senate committees to provide a bigger military budget than the Biden White House requested for next year, America’s Navy isn’t going to grow much.

So the last administration’s plans for a 500-ship Navy were stillborn—dead virtually from the moment they appeared.

Maintaining a high state of readiness even in a 300-ship fleet will be challenging, but that is the top priority of every U.S. military service, so we can expect operations and maintenance accounts to remain adequately funded going forward.

With force structure more or less static and readiness the highest service priority, that leaves modernization—the replacement of aging warships and aircraft with new technology—as the big question mark in Navy plans.

The Biden administration’s budget request for the fiscal year commencing October 1 was a bit of a shock as far as naval modernization is concerned.

The Navy only requested construction funds for four combat vessels—two subs, a destroyer and a frigate—plus four other ships, while proposing to retire a larger number of vessels, mainly surface combatants.

This move ostensibly would free up money for modernization in future years, but Congress is balking at some of the retirements so when the smoke clears weapons accounts will still be under pressure in the budget.

The Navy’s budget guidance makes clear that supporting nuclear deterrence will remain its top modernization priority, so the next-generation Columbia ballistic-missile submarine, life extension of its D5 missiles, and a new nuclear command-and-control aircraft are not in danger.

There also seems to be no inclination in the Pentagon or on Capitol Hill to cut the other type of undersea warship, attack subs, below a construction rate of two per year.

So production of the Virginia-class attack sub equipped with a new midship payload module to multiply the vessel’s cruise-missile capabilities against land and maritime targets will also stay on track.

Thus the cuts, at least as far as warships are concerned, will come in the surface fleet.

Trying to delay construction of aircraft carriers would provoke a firestorm of criticism on Capitol Hill; the Navy only builds one every five years, and large-deck, nuclear-powered carriers remain the signature expression of American military power.

No warship is more useful in an overseas crisis.

Having sent ambiguous signals about its future warfighting plans, the Marine Corps shouldn’t be surprised that construction of amphibious vessels looks like a billpayer in Navy plans.

It’s also a little hard to understand why the Navy wants to buy frigates that are much less capable than its destroyers for a price-tag that is nearly as high per ship, but having just commenced the Constellation frigate program, the Navy isn’t likely to now change its mind.

That leaves the destroyers.

A budgetary competition is emerging between the current class of Arleigh Burke vessels and a proposed next-generation destroyer designated DDG(X).

Congress appears much more favorably disposed to continuing production of the Burkes than embarking on the larger DDG(X).

The Navy says it needs more onboard volume and power generation for future weapons on its destroyers, but so many features of DDG(X) are borrowed from the Burkes that legislators aren’t so clear on why the Navy needs to pursue all the uncertainties of a new hull design.

So here’s my prediction: faced with inadequate funding for modernization, the Navy will decide it can live without a next-generation destroyer.

It will bow to congressional pressure to keep Burke-class destroyers in production, perhaps in a somewhat larger “Flight IV” configuration, and figure out how to do its job without yet another new warship program.

That is the lowest-risk approach to modernizing the surface fleet, and the path of least resistance in the political system.


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