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More Ships, At Least On Paper, In New Fleet Plan

Jul. 12, 2014 - 03:45AM   |  
By CHRISTOPHER P. CAVAS   |   Comments
The US Navy now counts its two hospital ships as part of the battle force — one of a number of changes that skews future ship totals higher. Here, the hospital ship Mercy passes the Battleship Missouri Memorial in June in Pearl Harbor, Hawaii.
The US Navy now counts its two hospital ships as part of the battle force — one of a number of changes that skews future ship totals higher. Here, the hospital ship Mercy passes the Battleship Missouri Memorial in June in Pearl Harbor, Hawaii. (MC Tim D. Godbee/ / US Navy)
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WASHINGTON — The latest update of the US Navy’s annual 30-year shipbuilding plan shows a jump of 10 ships now in service compared with a year ago, but the updated number is a reflection of new ship-counting rules, not more ship production.

The plan was sent to Congress on July 1 after being delayed for months as Navy and Pentagon officials reviewed and revised key passages, particularly those dealing with future submarine funding and a request to inactivate and modernize half the fleet’s cruisers.

Alternately referred to as the 30-year fleet plan, the report includes numerous tables projecting ship counts through 2044, and provides details on a variety of individual programs.

Under new rules by which the Navy counts ships in its battle force, the ship totals have changed compared with previous years. The changes allowed the Navy, among other things, to count its two hospital ships and deployed coastal patrol vessels in the battle force. The changes are somewhat controversial, as some feel the Navy is inflating its ship count.

A chart using the old counting methods is included at the end of the report. A comparison with the new counting rules shows a number of differences. The fleet in 2015, according to the new rules, has 284 ships. Under the old rules, that would be 274. The new rules show about 10 ships more per year than the old rules, although that margin drops to single digits in 2019 and continues to drop.

The highest projected new-rule fleet is in 2028 with 319 ships, while the previous rules maxed out the same year with 316.

Sequestration asterisk

Like last year and reflecting the overall 2015 budget request, the report is replete with warnings about the negative impact of the Budget Control Act (BCA), which created sequestration. If the 2016 budget is constrained to BCA caps, the report said, “the Navy will be unable to execute the plan.” As a result, “it is unlikely that the force remaining will be able to meet the totality of the missions” required by the most recent Quadrennial Defense Review.

Despite that, the Navy said in the report, “the strategic and operational risk to national security associated with the presented force structure of naval vessels is acceptable.”

In a cover letter to Congress, Deputy Defense Secretary Robert Work again noted that BCA funding caps would force the retirement of the aircraft carrier George Washington, even as Congress is steadily rejecting that notion as it works its way through the 2015 defense bills.

Indications are growing that the Navy, behind the scenes, is bowing to Congress’ will and starting measures to resume planning and funding for the ship’s refueling and overhaul. No official announcement has been made, however, and none is expected, at least until after the Senate Appropriations Committee — the last of the four key defense committees to do so — marks up its 2015 defense bill. The markup is scheduled for July 17.

The issue of how to fund the nuclear-powered ballistic missile submarines of the Ohio Replacement Program — also known as SSBN(X) — rates special attention in the report. The first of 12 submarines is scheduled to be ordered in 2021.

“The average cost of this plan during the period during which the [Navy] is procuring Ohio Replacement SSBN(X) cannot be accommodated by the Navy from existing resources,” the Navy said. As a result, “the battle force will fall far short of meeting the QDR requirements.”

The projected annual shipbuilding budgets show minor adjustments from last year. In the near-term planning period, 2015 to 2024, the Navy will need an average of $15.7 billion per year for shipbuilding. For the mid-term period, 2025 to 2034, the figure is $19.7 billion, reflecting the cost of the SSBN(X). The far-term period, 2035 to 2044, forecasts $14.6 billion.

From 2015 through 2044, the plan shows an average of $16.7 billion per year for shipbuilding — down from last year’s figure of $16.8 billion.

An unexplained feature in the plan shows some revisions in the number of attack submarines ordered in specific years, particularly in the 2020s, when both Virginia-class and SSBN(X) submarines will be built. Last year’s plan featured three years in which three submarines a year were planned — two attack subs and one missile sub — a costly eventuality few outside the Pentagon think can be realized. This year’s plan doubles the three-per-year instances, to six different years — every other year beginning in 2024.

A follow-on design to the Virginia class is mentioned in the report, with research and development work scheduled to begin in 2034.

Surface fleet modifications

Littoral combat ship procurement has changed, reflecting a Pentagon decision this year to review the program and possibly build a new or modified design. A special Small Surface Combatant Task Force is to deliver a report at the end of this month, after which decisions are to be made that will be incorporated in the 2016 budget plan. Until then, LCS procurement has shifted to three ships per year — except for two ships in 2019 — through 2025.

Procurement of the large LHA(R) amphibious assault ship remains programmed for 2017, but funding of the LX(R) amphibious ship has slid one year, with advanced procurement now scheduled for 2019 and full funding in 2020. A total of 11 ships is planned.

Funding of the first T-AO(X) fleet oiler replacement program remains in 2016, with the second ship in 2018. Seventeen ships are planned, funded through 2033.

The report, however, reflects an ongoing debate about how many support ships to keep in operation. Two of the large AOE fast replenishment ships, Bridge and Rainier, are scheduled for inactivation — Bridge in September and Rainier a year later, and the Navy has wrestled with proposals to inactivate all four AOEs — powered by gas turbines, the highly capable ships also are the most expensive logistics force ships to operate.

Deletion of the fleet’s four ATF fleet tugs and four ARS salvage ships also has been discussed, and the new report shows two of each of those types scheduled for inactivation in 2016.

Plans to replace these and other support ships continue, however, with four new fleet tugs to begin in 2017 and four new salvage ships in 2020. Replacements for the fleet’s two submarine tenders also continue to be programmed, one each in 2023 and 2025.■

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