ALEXANDRIA – Good Evening, Drifters
As a general rule, I don’t care much for conferences. I inevitably eat terribly, drink too much and am subjected to way too much fluorescent overhead light. I go to a lot of conferences every year, to the point where it’s a little like Ground Hog Day. But there are a couple I look forward to every year: Submarine League and the American Society of Naval Engineers Technology, Systems and Ships conference.
I don’t know why I like ASNE so much, except for that it’s a small venue and the conversation tends to be substantive. This year, Vice Adm. Thomas Moore, the head of Naval Sea Systems Command, gave an interesting talk on an issue that has been nagging at a lot of naval observing types: How on earth do you plan to get our surface combatant fleet to 45 years or beyond in their service lives?
That’s the subject of tonight’s Drift, and I’m going to let Vice Adm. Moore do most of the talking.
Thanks again for reading!
45 is the New 35
Essential Backgroud: The US Navy’s fleet is getting old. It might get a lot older.
There is very little evidence based on the past two decades to indicated that the Navy will maintain the level of interest in readiness and maintenance that it has shown in the past three years. But if the Navy wants to make it to 355 ships before I’m 70 years old, it really has no choice.
In the future, the Navy will rely on it’s ships to stick around longer, and pack more space, weight, power and cooling in order to stay relevant for extended service lives. That means that FFG(X) and Large Surface Combatant, when they arrive at the fleet, we can assume they’ll be there for the better part of a decade.
That means one thing above anything else: From Day 1, sailors are going to have to take care of the ship and the fleet is going to have to fund the maintenance.
That’s a point that Vice Adm. Moore delivered at ASNE this year. A large part of his talk was dedicated to answering the question: Can you really get the Arleigh Burkes to 45 years? I’ll let him tell it.
Moore: At the beginning of the new Administration, then-Secretary [Sean] Stackley had us look at, based on what we have today and the investments we’ve made in industry, how long will it take to get to 355 ships? And the answer to that question was 2052. That wasn’t something that was going to fit on a bumper sticker and, frankly, when we mentioned it on the Hill it wasn’t terribly well received. And so CNO came to NAVSEA and said ‘Hey is there a way to keep the platforms we have a little longer.’ So we looked at it and frankly it wasn’t that difficult. The answer was that you can absolutely keep the ships you have longer, so long as you do the maintenance. We have a long history of keeping ships for 40, 45 years. Aircraft Carriers today, we keep them for 50 years.
I was just out in Puget Sound Naval Shipyard … and we had just finished a dry dock availability on Nimitz. And 44 years old, oldest combat ship we have in service: she looks fantastic. A testament to the fact that from a hull, mechanical perspective we can absolutely keep them longer.
So, the issue is really not can you keep them 50 years the issue is can they keep combat relevance? Because if they can keep combat relevance, we know well how to maintain them. I was the weapons officer on the USS Conyngham (DDG-17), and most of those Adams-class destroyers were decommissioned at 20, 25 years. And a lot of people think we decommissioned them because they were rust buckets. I can attest to you that Conyngham was not in great material condition. But that’s not why we decommissioned them. We decommissioned them because it had a single Mk. 13 launcher that could shoot a single SM-1 missile that could travel 40 miles downrange at the time. It just wasn’t a combat relevant platform for today’s world.
On the other hand, if you look at an Arleigh Burke destroyer and where they are today: If you look back to 1990 when Arleigh Burke was commissioned, I’m not sure many people would have predicted that Arleigh Burkes would be the principal ballistic missile defense platform for the US Navy. And that’s for a couple of very good reasons. Open architecture and Aegis, and the ability to upgrade the system to pace the threat. And the other thing I’d tell you is that vertical launch system has been a real game-changer for us. We can shoot any number of things out of those launchers – we’ll probably change those out and upgrade them for prompt-strike weapons down the road.
So, you can well imagine, if you build something with open architecture, a vertical launch system and something akin to Aegis, you can maintain combat relevance. But once you do that, it comes down to: Are you willing to pay to do the maintenance.
Essentially, every steel-hulled platform can make it to 40, 45 years. We’re learning some things about aluminum platforms so we’re not quite ready to say you could take LCS to 45 years, but we were able to push it to 35. But the good news is that if you can keep the ships to 45 years, that 2052 timeframe to get to 355 turns to 2034.
As I noted at the top, there is not a ton of evidence that the Navy can execute a disciplined maintenance regime, something I grumpily covered in a previous volume:
Navy maintenance is a dumpster fire: The Drift, Vol. XXIV
Color me skeptical.
Now on to the Hotwash.