The Drift

Sponsored by:

Navigation Brief

This is an e-newsletter first published Nov. 5

ALEXANDRIA – Good Evening, Drifters

Well it has been a momentous week. Why? Well, I wrote my first editorial. As an exercise in writing, it was a new thing. The Drift can be opinionated at times, but I like to think that most of what I do here is just raise questions and try and answer them as best I can with the available data.

An editorial is something of a different beast: There’s a level of internal logic you need to achieve that we in no way strive for here at The Drift. You must make an argument.

But since you all are near and dear to my heart, I thought I’d give you an advanced look. It’s about submarine building and what’s required to meet the kind of goals laid out by Secretary Esper, who in September called for the Navy to begin building three Virginia-class attack submarines per year “as soon as possible.”

We’ve talked previously in The Drift about how it is confusing to me why we would have a substantially different 30-year shipbuilding plan every POM cycle. Part of the reason is that we seem to be in a never-ending cycle of force structure assessments that continually move the goal post.

It seems to defeat the purpose of long-term planning if your plan changes all the time. That was the subject of the piece. Hope you dig it.

Let’s Drift!


Ever-Changing Plans

Here’s a quick guided tour of what I wanted to argue and why I said what I said.

The crux of the argument I’m trying to make is that with the ever-shifting plans for building ships, industry can’t adequately plan for hiring and facilities expansion. This applies across the board for the Navy but submarine building is an especially fragile industrial base. I wanted to make a larger point about the challenges inherent in expanding the fleet by keying in on Esper’s push for three attack subs per year:

Excerpt:But the companies that build the submarines — General Dynamics and Huntington Ingalls Industries — as well as the multitude of smaller businesses that supply niche, highly specified parts to assemble nuclear reactors or missile launch tubes, have every reason to ignore Esper’s latest grand designs.

Industry well remembers the 1990s when costs drove the Navy to slash the Seawolf-class sub order from 29 hulls to just three, with no immediate replacement vessel ready to keep the lines hot.

Seawolf was ultimately replaced with the cheaper but capable Virginia class, but the break in production hit the submarine industrial base hard. It drove parts suppliers out of business and forced skilled workers into other fields — skills that can take years to recoup through training a new workforce.

With those memories in mind, Esper’s plan seems unlikely to persuade companies to expand their production capacity. This especially applies when the Navy seems unable to stick to a shipbuilding plan for more than a single budget cycle.

One reason the industry shouldn’t bank on three subs per year is the mismatch between the Fy21 shipbuilding request that, if we recall, also shorted a Virginia-class submarine from the request, but also was $4 billion less than what Congress appropriated in 2020. If you use the Fy21 budget as a guide, three SSNs plus a Columbia per year starting in 2026 would be a huge percentage of the Navy’s shipbuilding budget.

Excerpt:Three Virginia-class submarines per year (with the Block V costing $3.5 billion per hull, according to Navy leaders) and a $7.5 billion Columbia-class submarine every year starting in 2026 would mean $18 billion in submarines each year in today’s dollars, representing roughly 85 percent of the 2021 shipbuilding budget request.

For context, the Navy requested around $20 billion for shipbuilding in 2021, meaning more than 85 percent of the Navy’s shipbuilding budget request from this year would be consumed by submarines.

Few, if any, analysts believe this would be a sustainable shipbuilding budget going forward, given the Navy also needs to buy surface combatants, amphibious ships and of course a revitalized logistics system vital for sustaining any potential maritime conflict with a rival great power.

At the same time, few analysts are predicting a large boost to defense spending, with most predicting essentially flat budgets with inflation.

So, we come down to the brass tax. Much like I laid out in my article from my trip with Robert O’Brien, the math doesn’t work to grow the Navy unless you get more money in the budget or you cut other services to pay for it.

Recent plans studied by OSD called for growing the fleet but leaning heavily on unmanned and smaller ships to cut down on operations and sustainment costs. That’s one solution, I’m sure there are other ways to go about fixing the Navy’s China problems. But ultimately, what’s needed is a plan, and one that Congress and DoD are on board with.

Excerpt: In the coming months, defense planners at the Pentagon and on Capitol Hill should converge on what kind of Navy they want and devise a plan to get there. Because until there is a steady, reasonable and workable plan, industry seems unlikely to invest in expansions to meet the latest here-today, gone-tomorrow shipbuilding plan.


On to The Hotwash!

The Hotwash

Our new Israel correspondent in Jerusalem filed a really fun piece on Israel’s new corvettes just delivered from Germany. I know Drifters will enjoy it, here’s and excerpt:

Excerpt: Israel will receive the first of four Sa’ar 6 ships in December as part of a broad shift in naval doctrine that will see the country defend more areas at sea at a longer distance for a longer period of time, according to the Israel Defense Forces.

The coming shift in maritime activity comes in the wake of Israel signing a pipeline deal with Cyprus and Greece in the summer, and joining an Eastern Mediterranean gas forum with Cyprus, Greece, Egypt, Jordan and the Palestinian Authority. It also comes amid new investments in Israeli’s Haifa Port that could involve the United Arab Emirates; the two countries recently agreed to improve relations.

A Nov. 11 ceremony will see the Israeli flag replace the German flag on the ship, which was made in Kiel, Germany, by Thyssenkrupp Marine Systems. The IDF expects the Sa’ar 6 to defend offshore infrastructure — making up an area over twice the size of Israel’s land territory. The discovery of natural gas reserves and Israel’s desire to protect its exclusive economic zone were the main motivations behind the 2013 decision to order the ships.

Read the whole piece here: Israel shifts naval doctrine with new Sa’ar 6 warships

More Reading

Update to the build schedule: Here’s the latest on the next US supercarrier

‘The Quad’ Kicks Off Malabar 2020 Exercise in Bay of Bengal

US forces participate in UNITAS exercise with Ecuadorian navy, other regional allies

Coalition aircraft launched almost 35,000 strikes on ISIS targets over six years

BWXT CEO: Navy’s Next-Generation SSN(X) Attack Boat Will Build Off Columbia Class

David B. Larter was the naval warfare reporter for Defense News.

More In The Drift