Naval warfare reporter David Larter offers his take on the state of the U.S. Navy's surface fleet after recently embarking with service personnel. (Jeff Martin, Dustin Diaz, Ben Murray and Daniel Woolfolk/Staff)

WASHINGTON — After a turbulent 2017, the United States’ surface Navy sails into 2018 with a mountain of challenges but also opportunities to fix long-standing issues and build for the future.

Analysts, Navy observers and industry representatives who spoke to Defense News outlined a series of issues the surface fleet needs to tackle this year. The major items included implementing changes to address the readiness issues identified in the wake of the deadly collisions in the Pacific over the summer; focusing on increasing the offensive lethality of the fleet; and moving out on new shipbuilding projects.

The Navy’s dual reviews — the Fleet Forces Command-led comprehensive review and the Navy secretary’s strategic review — slammed fleet leaders in the Pacific for allowing readiness to slip as it pushed its ships to meet ever-increasing requirements. The secretary’s review traced decades of cutting corners and failures that put the fleet in the position it now faces.

The reports found several issues, among them:

  • Sailors either froze or failed to act during critical junctures when actions could have avoided disaster, pointing to training shortfalls among crews.
  • The Navy lacked a good mechanism to make sure its sailors and officers remain sharp on basic seamanship and navigation skills throughout their career.
  • The Navy had a culture that caused it to cut corners to meet real-world demand.
  • The Navy needed to establish clearer lines of authority and responsibility to avoid fuzzy ownership of readiness and training issues.
  • Career paths for officers emphasized staff and headquarters assignments, de-emphasizing the Navy’s core function of safely operating ships at sea.

Bryan McGrath, a retired destroyer skipper and consultant who heads up The Ferrybridge Group, said he’ll be looking at how the Navy implements the changes recommended in the report.

“In 2018 I’m looking for measured and mature reactions to the comprehensive review and the strategic review that address important issues concerning surface warfare employment in the western Pacific,” McGrath said. “But I’m also looking for signs of overreaction.”

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Jerry Hendrix, a retired naval flight officer and analyst with the Center for a New American Security, agreed, saying he’ll be watching closely how the Navy learns lessons from the accidents that claimed the lives of 17 sailors.

“I’ll be watching for how the Navy takes on board the lessons learned from the collisions, whether we see investments in training and readiness,” Hendrix said. Yet, he cautioned against draconian cuts in other areas.

“It’s going to be interesting. You are going to have a lot of voices arguing the emphasis on reinvesting in readiness, I think there is a lot to be said for that,” Hendrix noted. “But readiness also can become a bottomless well that never gets filled, so a balance of readiness and crew training and investment in new technologies and capacity is what’s needed.”

Thomas Callender, a retired submariner and analyst at the Heritage Foundation, said any solution that does not address capacity — the number of ships the Navy has to perform the jobs it’s assigned — would be incomplete because overstretching the force is what led to or exacerbated the issues in 7th Fleet in the first place.

“You can’t address readiness and not address capacity,” Callender said. “Certainly there was neglect and not doing things we should be doing in the past, but it’s also a capacity issue and it becomes a snowball effect.

“As fewer ships get overstretched, overtasked and more worn out, when they get into maintenance it takes longer and is more expensive. So we have a capacity issue and Congress has recognized that, but at the same time there are the fiscal realities: We’re not getting a trillion-dollar defense budget any time soon. So senior [Defense Department] leaders are going to have to make some hard choices.”

‘Liquored up’ on 355

Congress recently passed a provision in the 2018 National Defense Authorization Act that made a 355-ship Navy national policy, but that’s dependent on appropriations. The prospect is one that most analysts have become gloomy about after a brief spasm of optimism when Donald Trump was elected president on a platform that promised a massive defense buildup.

“It’s New Year’s Day and now we’ve got a hangover — we all got liquored up on a 355-ship Navy when Trump was elected, but now it’s back to reality,” McGrath said. “The name of the game is continuing to pursue the durability and lethality of our surface ships. We’re going to hear more about distributed lethality and distributed maritime operations — individual unit hardening, self-defense.”

A retired Navy captain who now works in industry agreed that 2018 needed to be a year for innovation and moving the surface fleet forward.

“The Navy has to innovate big time, and not just in technology but in the way we fight,” said the captain, who spoke on condition of anonymity to avoid professional conflicts. “If we are going to be pertinent and relevant in the second half of the 21st century, we’ve got to make changes.”

The surface fleet needs to move away from using active, onboard sensors to acquire and direct fires toward enemy targets.

“In the 21st century, if you radiate, you are going to die,” the captain said, arguing that using off-board active sensors (i.e., drones) and keeping all electronics onboard the ship as passive sensors will be the way the Navy will continue to dominate going forward.

Keeping the cruisers and upgrading them is also a priority if the Navy is going to expand its capacity in the near term, experts agreed. The Navy is currently on track to begin decommissioning the cruisers at a rate of two per year in 2020.

Hendrix said he is watching for a plan to keep the cruisers in 2018.

“Service life extensions are going to be a big issue,” Hendrix said. “Are we going to take those challenges seriously because I’m worried about that, especially losing the [vertical launch system] capacity when those cruisers go away.”

New ship programs

The other major item the experts will be watching for is new shipbuilding programs.

The Navy unveiled its plans for a next-generation guided-missile frigate in 2017, but details of what exactly the ship is going to look like and what it’s going to do are still being fleshed out. The Navy recently collected industry ideas about ships that would fit the bill — many of which are variants of existing foreign and domestic-designed ships — but the service is still torn on what it wants out of its new frigate.

“One of the key things this year will be to see where they go with FFG(X) and the impacts that will have on capabilities that are sorely needed — especially in the Pacific,” Callender said, using an acronym for the service’s frigate program.

Hendrix agreed, saying the frigate was one of the key issues of 2018 for the surface Navy. The frigate is the Navy’s answer to some of the shortfalls of the littoral combat ship, which was not designed for fighting near-peer competitors in the blue ocean. But the whole idea of frigates is to have a lower-end, less expensive ship that can take on tasks that ease the burden on the high-end shooters — the cruisers and destroyers.

Making sure the Navy is disciplined about keeping the ship’s requirements in check so as not to build a duplicative mini-version of the Arleigh Burke-class destroyer is vital to the success of that program, Hendrix argued.

“FFG(X) is the big issue of the year, and there has already been some maneuvering behind the scenes to again slant this towards a high-capability platform, and that’s missing the boat about what that platform is suppose to be about,” Hendrix said.

The Navy needs to keep its costs down so it can build more of them and ease the strain on the fleet’s capacity, Hendrix added.

For Callender, the service also needs to move out on a replacement for the Burkes.

“They are way behind the eight ball on this one,” he said. “We’ve done some great things in the Flight III Arleigh Burke [about to enter production], but we’ve kind of reached the technical limits of that design. We can’t continue to pack more power and capability into that design, so we definitely need to move forward with the future surface combatant.”