WASHINGTON — The U.S. Navy may have to pick just one of three major modernization programs on the horizon to fund — pursuing a new destroyer, a new attack submarine or a new fighter jet, the acting Navy secretary warns in a recent memo. The other two due would be postponed to budget limitations, he wrote.
A June 4 memo from acting Navy Secretary Thomas Harker stated that, in line with recently reissued fiscal guidance from the Office of the Secretary of Defense, the service should be prepared to fully fund certain top priorities in its fiscal 2023 planning cycle but cut back in other areas.
“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. As part of the [program objective memorandum ‘23] budget, the Navy should prioritize one of the following capabilities and re-phase the other two after an assessment of operational, financial and technical risk,” the memo read.
The Navy had planned to upgrade from its Arleigh Burke-class destroyers to the future DDG(X); from its Virginia-class submarines into the future SSN(X); and from its F/A-18E/F Super Hornets into a Next Generation Air Dominance platform — with all three projects coming to fruition sometime in the next decade.
Each has compelling reasons to continue at pace, making the upcoming risk assessments tricky for the Navy.
Prior to the memo’s release, DDG(X) would have been the first of the three to see fielding in fiscal 2028. The Navy has maxed out the Arleigh Burke hull despite making several design upgrades over the decades. The current Flight III design can accommodate the most recent Aegis combat weapon system upgrade to Baseline 10 and the AN/SPY-6 air defense radar, but those upgrades will consume all the ship’s power and cooling capabilities.
A new hull and a new power system will be needed for any future upgrades and to support the introduction of weapons like directed-energy systems and hypersonic missiles.
The Navy had several starts and stops while determining the size of its next destroyer, how much margin it needed for future growth, and what roles and missions it would perform in the fleet. The Navy is mostly now settled on designing a new hull but using the Aegis Baseline 10 and the Zumwalt-class integrated power system as starting points for the design.
The Navy asked in its FY22 budget request for $121.8 million for DDG(X) “preliminary design, design analysis, test planning, land based testing, and developing detailed design and construction requirements for procurement of the lead ship,” according to a budget highlights book.
Though Ingalls Shipbuilding and Bath Iron Works could continue building Flight III destroyers past 2027, a delay beyond 2028 in moving to DDG(X) would impact the Navy’s ability to field directed-energy and hypersonic weapons in the surface fleet.
The future submarine SSN(X) likely would have been the next of the three to be fielded, with a recent Congressional Research Service report citing an FY31 start.
The Navy has been purchasing the Virginia-class sub since 1998 and has progressed to the Block V design, with various capability upgrades and manufacturing improvements built along the way.
Whereas DDG(X) is simply about building in margin to add new weapons in the future, SSN(X) represents a new direction for the Navy’s submarine fleet. When the Virginia program was designed in the 1990s, the Navy didn’t face a high-end adversary like it had during the Cold War. The Virginia program was meant to be less costly than the Seawolf program before it and was focused on land-attack and littoral operations.
The Navy had at one point talked about SSN(X) as an opportunity to combine a Virginia-like submarine with unmanned vehicles and seabed sensors for greater connectivity in undersea warfare. But with a resurgence in Russia’s undersea fleet, the Navy has recently talked about SSN(X) as more of a throwback to the Seawolf program: heavily armed and stealthy enough to go into enemy waters to prowl for subs or surface ships.
Per the Navy’s FY22 budget highlights book, “the SSN(X) class submarine is designed for greater transit speed under increased stealth conditions in all ocean environments, and it can carry a larger inventory of weapons and more diverse payloads than the Virginia class.” The Navy has requested $98 million to complete an initial capabilities document, start an analysis of alternatives and continue technology development.
In their teaming arrangement, General Dynamics Electric Boat and Newport News Shipbuilding could continue building Virginia-class submarines, but that would lead to a delay in the Navy’s ability to field more offensive-focused subs.
The Next Generation Air Dominance platform was likely going to be the last of the three to enter service. And it perhaps faces the biggest challenge for fielding plans.
The Navy envisions an air wing of fourth-generation Super Hornets and fifth-generation F-35 Joint Strike Fighters into the 2030s, when the Super Hornets would begin to retire and NGAD would enter the fleet.
However, the Navy has been tight-lipped about what it wants from its next fighter. Then-Navy Secretary Ray Mabus said in 2015 that the F-35 may be the Navy’s last manned fighter, but NGAD has increasingly been looking like a manned fighter with extensive connectivity to unmanned systems. The effort is in a concept development phase.
What makes the transition to NGAD difficult is the prospect of a fighter shortfall.
Much like the Navy faced as the legacy Hornets were nearing the end of their life — spurring a life-extension program — the service is extending the lives of its Super Hornet fleet. But there could still be challenges ahead as the fleet nears retirement but carrier air wings experience a high operational tempo, as seen in recent years.
The Navy stated in its FY21 budget request that it would end Super Hornet production, finishing its obligation under a multiyear contract that ended in 2021 but not pursuing a new contract in FY22. In the FY22 request, it makes good on its word and does not include funding for Super Hornet production, instead noting it would invest in NGAD — though the Navy said the amount of funding it will devote to the program is classified.
If the Navy decides to punt its next fighter down the road as it picks between the three programs, the service will likely need to act quickly to buy more Super Hornets, or otherwise mitigate a fighter shortfall that could arise in the next decade.
Other spending priorities
Despite budget concerns over the three modernization programs, Harker’s memo called for full support for strategic deterrence recapitalization, including the Columbia-class ballistic missile submarine that has long been called the Navy’s top acquisition priority.
It also called for support to “operationalize initiatives that connect warfighters and weapons systems with the data necessary to achieve precision effects.” It asks the Navy to “fully fund Project Overmatch to enable both increased battlespace awareness and long range fires as well as support the seamless transition to assured unmanned operations.”
It also called for technology investments that support continued teleworking, something the Navy realized the importance of during the COVID-19 pandemic. The memo also pushed for training and education investments to grow the United States Naval Community College as well as a new damage control and firefighting trainer at Recruit Training Command.
The memo also called for a decrease in physical footprint, saying “the Navy cannot afford to own, operate, and maintain its current infrastructure and must prioritize demolition to achieve long-term sustainment.” To do so, it pushed for the development of a 10-year reset strategy to reduce the Navy’s facility footprint in terms of square feet by 1 percent a year for the next decade.
Megan Eckstein is the naval warfare reporter at Defense News. She has covered military news since 2009, with a focus on U.S. Navy and Marine Corps operations, acquisition programs and budgets. She has reported from four geographic fleets and is happiest when she’s filing stories from a ship. Megan is a University of Maryland alumna.