Current law and presidential policy established 355 ships, including 12 carriers and 66 submarines, as the U.S. Navy force goal. Since few mission categories have support of law, budgets should reflect this priority. They have not.

In fact, the fiscal 2020 defense budget proposed reducing carriers by not refueling the aircraft carrier Harry S. Truman. Opposition was so strong that the president reversed the plan. The FY21 budget removed a submarine and frigate.

No progress has been made toward this goal in this administration. Ships have an average life of about 35 years. Replacement is eight to nine ships a year. Expansion of the force over a 10-year period requires about 70 ships above replacement quantity or seven ships a year. Total annual ship acquisition for the next 10 years should be about 15 ships. Average procurement recently has been about eight ships. At this rate, force expansion is impossible.

Recent administrations have not shown much creativity in the acquisition process. In 1981, the president established the 600-ship Navy goal. Leadership invented new acquisition processes, including two-ship carrier acquisition, competition in the cruiser and submarine programs, the build and charter for 17 logistics ships, acquisition of 100 used cargo ships, carrier service life extension, and battleship reactivations and others. Strict cost control was achieved with cost-centered management of requirements, future block upgrades, change orders and enforcement in production by contract competition. These actions were essential in attaining programwide “on schedule, on budget” successes.

Nothing equivalent has occurred in the current Navy acquisition system.

But the bigger cost control failure is doubling of average ship-constant-dollar cost from $1 billion in the 1980s to $2 billion today. This assures force decline since the shipbuilding budget has not doubled, but is rather likely to decline.

Chinese naval leadership has to be elated with the U.S. failure to make progress toward the Navy force goal. They noticed the inability to maintain a 12-carrier force. The Chinese are pursuing their goal of a six-carrier Navy by 2035. They are building combatant ships at an alarming pace. They built a second shipyard for carrier production.

The challenge is quite clear. Change in all aspects is needed:

Policy: The 355-ship Navy is established law.

Budget: The Navy shipbuilding budget should be set at the Cold War constant-dollar average of $26.7 billion. This will be a design-to-cost Navy.

Average ship cost: In the 10-year force increase period, average cost for 15-ship annual production is $1.78 billion. Following that, in the sustainment period of a 355-ship Navy, average cost can be $2.67 billion.

Organize for success: First, give leadership authority, responsibility and accountability for achieving the 355-ship Navy to the secretary of the Navy. Secondly, since current combination of technology, production and sustainment has proven a failure in the Office of the Secretary of Defense and the Navy. The implementing organization should revert to the Cold War model with:

  • One assistant secretary devoted to identifying and implementing technology necessary for success of offense and disruption of the adversary.
  • The second assistant secretary devoted to efficient acquisition and excellent sustainment. The Cold War success proves this organization works.

There are also improvement opportunities. Here they are by ship class:

Carriers: The aircraft carrier Gerald R. Ford was planned to enter the fleet when the Enterprise retired. That did not happen. The ship is about 10 years late and $2.5 billion over budget. A two-ship procurement occurred, although the lead ship was not a fully matured design. Cost of the second Ford-class ship has increased by a reported $300 million. New approaches for future carriers should be evaluated, including:

  • Stripping unnecessary specifications from the Ford-class ships.
  • Evaluating a Ford-based design using modern conventional power.
  • Evaluating a smaller conventionally powered carrier.
  • Refuel Nimitz-class carriers the second time.

Large surface combatants: Drop plans for a new ship. Keep building the DDGs.

The aircraft carrier Gerald R. Ford conducts high-speed turns in the Atlantic Ocean. (MC3 Connor Loessin/U.S. Navy)
The aircraft carrier Gerald R. Ford conducts high-speed turns in the Atlantic Ocean. (MC3 Connor Loessin/U.S. Navy)

Small surface combatants: Congress saved the Navy from more littoral combat ships and provided a very sensible path for a replacement. The winner of that competition has been selected. Action is needed now to involve multiple sources.

Columbia-class submarines: This program sounds good now.

Virginia-class submarines and follow-up classes: Submarine force planning is totally inconsistent with any concept of cost realism. Submarines have the biggest force gap, but planners show little interest in reducing unit cost, now approaching $4 billion. Other categories of ships have large and small ships, but submarines only get larger and more expensive. It is time to rethink the submarine force philosophy of “bigger is better.”

Amphibious ships: Marines should use Army landing ships and logistics-over-the-Shore concepts that have been in multi-service development for decades. Equipment is ready to buy with no development.

Sealift ships: Any sealift ships should be converted from existing ships for the limited needs of defense use.

Logistic ships: The CHAMP — or Common Hull Auxiliary Multi-Mission Platform — program plans to develop common hull designs for support ships. The first concepts included a pre-positioning ship at over $700 million and a submarine tender at $1.5 billion. This is about three times the cost of converting existing container ships or tankers. This program should be canceled. Programs should copy 1980s experience with conversions of readily available ships.

Unmanned ships: It has taken decades to develop an unmanned mine countermeasures system. This is an important fact to understand when considering new unmanned missions. Rapid progress is not likely. A Senate Armed Services Committee report challenges the Navy’s approach and points to the success of the “build a little, test a little, learn a lot " philosophy of the Aegis program. This is strong indication of lack of confidence in the Navy’s management of research and development efforts.

Conclusion

Over a number of administrations, the executive branch has failed to reach naval goals, including the 355-ship policy. Recently, then-Secretary of the Navy Richard V. Spencer tried multiple times with proposals, but to no effect.

The Chinese have taken full advantage of this failure and press on with major shipbuilding programs designed to implement parity and dominate the seas surrounding China as well as the resources of the Pacific Ocean, while spreading maritime influence worldwide.

The United States can and must do better by taking full advantage of the lessons learned in defeating the Cold War-era Soviet Navy.

Everett Pyatt is a former assistant secretary of the U.S. Navy for shipbuilding and logistics.