The Drift

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ALEXANDRIA, Va. – Good Evening, Drifters

People familiar with my Twitter feed will know that I am a die-hard Phillies fan, and I recognize my effusiveness and general excitement at the Bryce Harper signing is likely getting tiresome. But even if you don’t like Harper or you feel betrayed that he left Washington, we can all celebrate his 2012 contribution to the national lexicon.

During a trip to Toronto where the 19-year-old Harper hit a home run, a reporter asked if he was going to take advantage of the lower Canadian drinking age and have a celebratory beer. “I’m not answering that,” he replied. “That’s a clown question, bro.” It was a clown question, to be fair. (Harper is a Mormon who has been open about his abstention from alcohol.) But it was also one of those phrases  that in the internet age just kind of stuck. It went viral and people started using it in all kinds of circumstances, and it still pops up every now and again.

No matter what he does as a Phillie, I’m pretty sure that exchange will always be among my favorite things about Harper. I told you that story to tell you this one: There is a good number of people who don’t think much of this budget that just rolled out, who think it’s a clown budget, bro.

Not all of it, of course, but some of the major decisions, such as moving to decom the Truman, are difficult to explain. I figured for today I’d invite someone to The Drift who is smarter than I am: My friend and regular sounding board Thomas Callender of The Heritage Foundation, who is none too pleased with some of the major decisions reached in this budget.

Callender, a Navy analyst and retired submarine officer, took time to respond to my email from a trip to Poland, and for that I’m grateful. So without further ado, here’s tonight’s Drift!





The Good, The Bad and The Ugly in FY20

In the wake of the Pentagon’s announced decision to cancel the midlife refueling of the carrier Harry S. Truman, cutting it’s expected 50-year lifespan in half, The Heritage Foundation’s Thomas Callender took to Defense One to defend the utility of the aircraft carrier. According to a Foreign Policy report, an opinion is taking hold that the aircraft carrier is becoming obsolete in the face of investments by Russia and China in anti-access area denial technology.

Even Jim Mattis, he of the two-carrier-in-the-Persian-Gulf requirement that broke the Navy when he was U.S. Central Command commander, has decided the carrier’s utility is passing open, Lara Seligman reports. Callender argued that just because China had developed a threat to the carrier, didn’t mean it was time to pack up, shut out the lights and head home. The Navy had to develop a counter-strategy. Furthermore, the old truth still holds that a mobile airfield is still more survivable than a stationary one. And, last but not least, it is foolishness to divest a carrier and pursue potentially game-changing but unproven technology.

I emailed Tom to get some further thoughts on the 2020 budget, where he thinks the Navy is doing well and where it is falling short.

The Drift:  What are the top three things that jumped out at you from the budget?

Thomas Callender: First: The addition of a third Block V Virginia-class submarine in the Navy’s budget submission. The Navy’s 2018 30-year shipbuilding plan did not designate Fiscal Year (FY) 2020 as having additional shipyard capacity for a third SSN. FY 2022 was previously identified as the earliest the shipbuilding industry could support building three SSNs. While the third of these SSNs may not commence construction until FY22, the Navy was previously waiting until Columbia construction had begun to perturbate the current submarine construction plan. 

If the OSD focus is to buy more SSNs, then this acceleration would have made more sense if it was adding an additional SSN into the FYDP. Unfortunately, it does not.

Second: The decision to decommission USS Truman halfway through its planned service life after the 2016 FSA stated a requirement for 12 CVNs and 2018 long-range shipbuilding plan proposed opportunities to accelerate Ford CVN production. As we have the discussed and I wrote in my op-ed, the decision to make a major force structure change (which will not have as significant net savings as advertised) prior to the updated force structure assessment providing the warfighting and operational analysis to support such a decision is premature.

Third: The OSD decision to have the Navy retire ships earlier than planned and delay some shipbuilding programs to instead focus on potentially significant but immature and unproven technologies like hypersonic missiles, directed energy weapons, cyber warfare, artificial intelligence and unmanned systems is also premature. This should not be an either-or. These capabilities will make the Navy’s larger manned platforms more survivable and better able to contribute to the joint force in a great power competition.  The Navy is just beginning to determine tactics and CONOPs for these capabilities and their impact on future force structure is unknown. Again, the Navy should mature the CONOPS before deciding that several as-yet undefined large unmanned surface vessels and other unmanned platforms can replace a frigate or destroyer.

The Drift: You’ve been vocal about the decision to decom Truman. What alternate path do you suggest for OSD?

TC: The Navy will have CVNs for at least another 40-50 years in some capacity.  Rather than declaring victory for the Chinese and just decommissioning them all, OSD and the Navy should focus on near- and longer-term capabilities and CONOPs that will make the CVN and CSG more survivable and able to fight where needed. 

Some of these are the capabilities OSD is directing the Navy to invest in that will indeed make the CSG more survivable and lethal in a great power war. The primary focus should be on longer range survivable air-launched weapons for CVW and new manned and unmanned strike/fighter carrier aircraft with longer range and the ability to penetrate enemy air defenses better. Fight from 1000 nm out if necessary.

The Drift: The Department is framing its push for high-tech capabilities as a strategic decision to stay ahead of China. That sounds good, but what are your concerns and what would be a more responsible path to get where OSD is trying to go?

TC: It should not be all-in for high tech weapons and give up on current fleet and air wing. OSD should strive to develop emerging technologies and weapons that can regain the strategic advantage, while also adding more mature capabilities today and developing new tactics and CONOPs to address an adversary’s weakness with current forces and weapons systems used on different platforms and new missions other than original design.

Hotwash Time!

The Hotwash

Build ‘Em & Fix ‘Em

The 30-year shipbuilding plan came out today and my friends over at USNI were all over it:

Except: The Navy’s latest 30-year shipbuilding plan outlines a path forward that includes less near-term growth in fleet size but reaches and sustains a 355-ship fleet sooner than last year’s plan.

According to the “Report to Congress on the Annual Long-Range Plan for Construction of Naval Vessels for Fiscal Year 2020,” the Navy would decommission its cruisers and mine countermeasures ships sooner, creating more gradual growth in the overall fleet size in the short term. Due to life extensions on other ships – primarily destroyers, but also a few Los Angeles-class attack submarines – the Navy would reach 355 ships in 2034 and then remain at that exact fleet size through the remainder of the 30-year plan. Both factors create a smooth path from today’s 289 ships to 314 in 2024 to 355 in 2034 – whereas last year’s plan sharply rose to hit 326 ships by 2023, then dipped back down in the late 2020s and rose again in the next decade without ever hitting 355.

Read More: 30-Year Plan: Navy Puts 355-Ship Cap on Fleet Size; Plans to Introduce Large Combatant, CHAMP Auxiliary Hull

The Navy also issued its first 30-year ship maintenance plan. Again, USNI.

Excerpt: The Navy released its first-ever long-range ship maintenance and modernization plan amid a growing fleet and a growing backlog of repair work, and the report highlights challenges in dealing with chronic mismatches between maintenance requirements and yards’ capacity.

The report, Report to Congress on the Long-Range Plan for Maintenance and Modernization of Naval Vessels for Fiscal Year 2020, highlights a shortage of dry docks for surface ship maintenance and the need to improve existing infrastructure at public and private yards to keep up with newer classes of ships, as well as the need for process improvements to allow private shipyards and the supply chain to grow their capacity and move faster to respond to a growing fleet size.

Read More: Navy Needs More Dry Docks for Repairs, Says First-Ever Maintenance Report

More Reading

Big upgrade for the Burkes: With an eye to China and Russia, the US Navy plans a lethal upgrade to its destroyers

Commandant: Coast Guard nears readiness ‘tipping point’

This f***ing guy: ‘I’m House’ — inside the case of the commander in flip-flops who got canned

The IG-man Cometh: A government watchdog is investigating Trump’s defense secretary. Here’s why.

DoD 2020 Budget Looks to Fix Shipbuilding, Ammo Industrial Base

Virginia is losing its shine: Late is the new normal for Virginia-class attack boats

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