The last National Defense Authorization Act included Section 1092, titled “National Commission on the Future of the Navy.” The bipartisan commission will consist of eight nongovernment appointees reporting to Congress. The charter starts more than a thousand pages into the law, becoming a stealth provision.
This section is an important step for Congress to fulfill duties assigned in Article 1, Section 8 of the Constitution requiring Congress “to provide and maintain a Navy.” It follows the failure of the executive branch to implement any portion of the 2017 law approving the Navy’s 2016 force assessment. This set the goal of 355 ships.
Subsequent presidents’ budgets did not include force expansion. Additional ships were included through the authorization and appropriation process, at the risk of veto threats.
An underlying problem is that the Defense Department and the Navy have lost credibility in force planning and acquisition. Decline started with the Littoral Combat Ship program. Once an urgent requirement, ships are now planned for early retirement, wasting about $30 billion.
The Ford carrier project nearly doubled the constant dollar cost of Truman. The DDG-1000 class has yet to find a mission, but there are plans to install a hypersonic missile. The new Columbia-class ballistic missile submarine costs dominate the shipbuilding program. The clearly delayed completion schedule will require lengthening the operational lifetime of the 40-year-old Ohio class.
Reset is in order. This commission provides that opportunity if filled with knowledgeable and creative commissioners.
The challenges are many; the China competition comes to mind, but it is of secondary importance to the affordability challenge. Failure to confine costs will doom any attempt at force growth. This commission must focus on finding technology and platforms within planned national defense budgets.
Current major acquisition plans include roughly doubling the cost of destroyers and attack submarines. A new air superiority airplane has not been limited by cost. All these hopes are going in the wrong direction and will result in a fleet half the current size.
Navy leaders have pleaded for a continuing 3% to 4% real budget increase annually to fund these projects. That has been a Defense Department hope for 40 years and has never happened. It is time to get realistic.
Cost control was imperative in the 1980s in achieving the 600-ship Navy. We imposed competition for production, carefully controlled change by blocks, thus minimizing production disruptive changes; we designed the multiship carrier procurement; we converted newly used commercial ships; we purchased 100 used sealift ships for $300 million; and we eliminated excess bureaucracy by eliminating Navy Materiel Command.
Claims have been made that the shipbuilding industry does not have the capacity to build more ships. It is highly likely that more careful analysis will show that capacity exists to build at least 15 battleforce combatants a year. The real problem is that capacity is underused. This increases fixed costs amortized over fewer ships. Historic evidence shows that increased production and more competition reduces unit costs.
The logic is simple: If there is not a way to pay for the plan, it will not happen, no matter how good it may seem. Continual cost control is essential, a fact too often overlooked.
The second challenge is the maritime goal of China. It has many tentacles. State-owned firms are acquiring container-handling activities all over the world. These can serve many purposes. China’s merchant marine force is one of the world’s largest. Commercial shipbuilding dominates the world market.
The Chinese fishing fleet, with its thousands of ships, is conducting unrestricted warfare against the fish and food supplies of many countries.
Annexation of the South China Sea removes the possibility of regional countries obtaining the oil believed there.
The Chinese People’s Liberation Army Navy has undergone a major expansion and now is the largest in the world. More ships are under construction.
Next is likely an existential challenge to Taiwan.
Simply, the situation is defined by limited American and allied funds, and an aggressive maritime competitor. The challenge to achieve useful innovation in technology, system development and production, system readiness, management, and operations is clear. Failure to achieve this within budget limitations will assure growing Chinese hegemony over the oceans.
The American and allied advantage is also clear. We solved a maritime problem, helping to end the Cold War. That approach needs to be reinstated and applied to the current and future Chinese maritime challenge. Ideally, this bipartisan plan will be embraced by all presidential candidates during the decades required to implement it.
Everett Pyatt is a former assistant secretary of the U.S. Navy for shipbuilding and logistics.