The Drift

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Navigation Brief

(This piece was first published March 12 as an e-newsletter.)

ALEXANDRIA – Good evening, Drifters

Well it’s been one hell of a week, eh?

The last thing you need from me is a Coronavirus take (I apologize to my Twitter followers who have already been subjected to them) so I’ll just say: Stay safe out there, everyone. We’re going to get through this.

And as we work our way through it, we still have this gawd-awful mess of an FY21 Navy budget to deal with.

I was at a hearing the other day with the Navy’s requirements boss Adm. Jim Kilby and acquisition boss James Geurts. As I was leaving, I picked up a copy of the written testimony. It’s usually dry stuff and repeats the same talking points that the witnesses go over in the hearing itself. But as I sat on my couch at the Alexandria bureau, my eyes kind of bugged out at a certain point:

“Service life extensions can be targeted, physical changes to specific hulls to gain a few more years, or a class-wide extension based on engineering analysis. … The Navy has evaluated the most effective balance between costs and capability to be removing the service life extension on the DDG 51 class.”

That was a bit of a shock. I called the Navy to see if I had read that right and, yes, I did.

I wrote about it here:

Destroyers left behind: US Navy cancels plans to extend service lives of its workhorse DDGs

So, that’s what I want to talk about tonight.

Let’s Drift!


Time Running Short

There are a few things we need to go over with regards to the decision to cancel the service life extensions of the destroyers, but it starts with some testimony from Geurts before the House Readiness subcommittee.

Extending the Flight I and Flight II destroyers their 35-year service lives to 45 years was an integral part of the Navy’s plan to get to its goal of 355 ships. If they don’t do that, starting in 2026 the lead DDG, Arleigh Burke her own self, will be decommissioned. Then, because they built those ships like a mad bastard, they get retired at a rate of almost 3.3 per year over the next eight years.

The Navy has a little more time on the Flight IIAs because they have 40-year service lives.

The 2026 deadline means that, yes, the decomissionings start outside the five-year future-year defense plan. That may give the Navy some time to change plans. But not that much time.

Here’s what Geurts said:

The Quote:To put it in perspective, what we are talking about is post-FYDP changes. So.. none of these would be until the 26 through 30 area.

We had originally looked at adding service life to destroyers if you recall in hearings last year and the year before. That was one of the ways we were increasing the Naval size. What this shows you is some of the stark choices the Navy is having to make with a relatively flat line. Service life extensions do add to the size of the fleet but they kind of just push the cliff to the right and so we have got to be cautious you don't keep extending forever without building because eventually you will run out of the ability to extend and so--it reflected some hard choices we had to make in long-term planning.

Having said that, this is a 26 and out piece and it is something we are going to continue to look at what is the right business case. …

As we are seeing now with cruisers there is a point where extending these older ships, the cost is not worth the benefit. Particularly, if we don't have the ship in its enterprise working at full efficiency. My other expectation is we drive ship maintenance effectiveness and efficiency higher that may allow us to extend those ships without breaking the budget.

There is a lot to what Geurts has to say here: Sometimes its just not worth the money and effort to keep a ship going when you aren’t getting useful service out of it. That’s all well and good and something the Navy should consider.

But to say that this is a decision that is outside the FYDP and imply it could change, I have issues with that. The primary benefit of the “No destroyer left behind” policy as described by former OPNAV requirements boss Vice Adm. Bill Merz was that the service could plan well in advance and gain efficiencies by SLEPing the whole class. Now that planning is on hold. And furthermore, SLEPing 27 warships over less than a decade is an enormous undertaking.

The Navy is struggling with dry dock space as it is, and if they plan on a massive, class-wide service life extension program, they can’t afford to just wait until FY23 or 24 and slide it in the budget at the last minute. They need to be planning this today because other ships will need dry docking as well.

Hell, with a little vision and foresight, they could start buying materials now! Maybe they could even start the SLEPs by 2021 and get ahead of the game. The point is this isn’t some can to be kicked down the road for a few years. Maybe-we-will-maybe-we-won’t thinking just will not cut it for an undertaking of this scale.

Secondly, the Navy has a history of waffling on service life extensions toward the end of the service lives of ships. The Navy still goes back and forth on decommissioning the cruisers and a few years ago were forced to modernize some of them by Congress. That waffling comes with very real costs.

I had a discussion with a cruiser engineer a few years back who described to me those costs. He said that because there was so much uncertainty around whether or not the ship would be decommissioned, the fleet wouldn’t fund some needed repairs to the ship. Why throw good money after bad, right? But ultimately if they could get those things funded during regular availabilities, they could bring down the cost of a modernization later. Once ships get in the five-year window for decommissioning, the money for repairs and maintenance gets tight. And Arleigh Burke will be in that window next year.

Finally, advancing the issue at all sends mixed signals on what exactly the service wants to do: Is it growing or is it swimming in place? Because if its growing, it’s certainly not going to grow very fast taking 27 destroyers out of the fleet by 2034.

Because the Navy has yet to release its 30-year shipbuilding plan, we don’t know exactly what the effect of taking the destroyers out at their planned hull life would be. I think we can rest assured its not a 355-ship Navy.

Now on to The Hotwash.

The Hotwash

War Powers

Congress appears to have decided it wants to flex its war powers muscles for the first time in a very long time. My colleague Joe Gould breaks it down:

Excerpt: The U.S. House approved a bipartisan, Senate-passed measure Wednesday aimed at limiting President Donald Trump’s authority to launch military operations against Iran.

The White House issued a threat Tuesday that Trump will veto the measure, warning it would “undermine the ability of the United States to protect American citizens whom Iran continues to seek to harm.”

The measure was under House floor consideration as U.S. officials confirmed two Americans and one British national were killed when more than 15 small rockets hit Camp Taji in Iraq. Officials did not say what group they believe launched the rocket attack, but Kata-ib Hezbollah or another Iranian-backed Shia militia group is likely.

The resolution passed the House 227-186 and the Senate 55-45. On Wednesday, six House Republicans and one independent joined Democrats to constrain the White House, with six Democrats defecting.

Read more here: Congress passes Iran war limit, baiting Trump veto

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