As the US National Defense Strategy seeks to counter China’s influence in the Indo-Pacific region and address future threats to trade routes that the US and world economy depend on, the US Navy has a lot of challenges ahead.
Infantry and tanks can’t protect maritime trade, so this should be a sizable opportunity for the sea service to reassert its dominance after largely serving in a support role during 20 years of land warfare. The Navy’s most famous component might be its SEAL teams, but they make up a minuscule portion of the sea service’s total end strength.
For two decades, the Navy has made major missteps in its shipbuilding, causing concern about the service’s ability to become the keystone of American strategy. These haven’t been small mistakes, either. They’ve been made in combatant vessels, those meant to be part of a robust fighting fleet. Instead, the new ships are floating monuments to lost opportunities.
Littoral Combat Ships
Officially known as the LCS and unofficially mocked as the “Little Crappy Ship,” littoral combat ships began in 2004 with a program goal of 55 vessels. Nearly one in six Navy ships was supposed to be an LCS — a plan devised under a fundamental misreading of long-term trends. The LCS was supposed to be able to operate close to shore and in confined waters such as the Persian Gulf.
What it ended up being was a boat the size of a capital ship with the speed of a Jet Ski watercraft and the armament of a patrol boat. The ships were supposed to have swappable mission modules to allow each LCS to optimize as necessary for mine countermeasures, surface warfare, or anti-submarine missions. But those modules have taken more than 15 years to materialize. Only now are littoral combat ships fielding the Naval Strike Missile, and thus any capability to engage over the horizon, an important capability when your vessel is essentially unarmored and has a minimal crew for damage control.
But the real nail in the coffin for the LCS is its reliability. Both classes of the LCS have repeatedly suffered engineering casualties during routine operations that have left them limping and sometimes being towed into port, even without an enemy to worry about. Four virtually new ships are targeted for retirement in 2022, and the program is being truncated at 35 ships, far short of the original program of record.
The Zumwalt-Class Destroyer
The LCS was a significant misfire. The Navy tried to incorporate the littoral warfare flavor of the month and discovered it tasted like OJ and toothpaste. Providing naval fire support ashore has been a core competency of the Navy’s since its inception. When the DD-21 program morphed into the DD(X) and finally into the DDG-1000 series of Zumwalt-class destroyers, fire support was the centerpiece of the design.
Each DDG-1000 has two Advanced Gun Systems, which include 155 mm cannons able to fire Long Range Land Attack Projectiles over 80 miles. That emphasis on guns was a significant departure from the gradual but inexorable decline of naval guns since the end of World War II. Unfortunately, as the planned number of Zumwalts shrank, the cost of the ammunition rose to north of $800,000 a round. This resulted in the cancellation of ammunition purchases to the point where the guns now are basically expensive decorations, and the Navy is looking for ways to fill the space.
The problem with the guns on the Zumwalts reflects problems with the class itself and with advanced weapons more generally. The unknowns associated with new technology result in cost overruns, which mean cuts in quantities to stay within budget. Those cuts mean that development costs are spread over smaller numbers of platforms, and economies of scale are impossible on the remaining ones.
Originally, 32 destroyers in the Zumwalt class were to be built. The ship incorporates unique stealth features, an unusual hull type, turbine-electric drive, and several weapons and sensors different from any other Navy vessel. As costs escalated, the class was cut to just three ships, and the capabilities of those three were scaled back as well. As the program proceeds, more compromises likely will be made as the costs of maintaining orphan designs increase with age.
Ford–Class Aircraft Carrier
The namesake ship of the class, the USS Gerald R. Ford, hasn’t even begun operational deployments, but it has already endured a long, strange trip. The carrier is 30% over budget as of this writing.
If it were only the budget at issue, this would be an open-and-shut case of Pentagon overruns, but the Ford is pioneering several new technologies. Most famously, it incorporates the Electromagnetic Aircraft Launch System (EMALS), a Maglev-like device to accelerate planes for takeoff, replacing the venerable steam system incorporated in earlier carriers. Unfortunately, a 2020 analysis by the head of Navy operational testing showed that EMALS was failing after only 181 launches, far short of the 4,166-launch system requirement.
The carrier has had similar issues with its highly automated ordnance elevators. After an arduous process, four of its 11 elevators still aren’t fully ready as the ship heads out to shock trials this summer. By missing those trials, the Navy may never know whether those systems, critical to the ship’s fighting ability, can withstand the stresses of combat.
These issues should not be a surprise. The ship was procured in 2008 and commissioned in 2017. More importantly, even after going through all this trouble, the survivability of carriers and their relatively short-legged aircraft in the future is still the subject of much debate. At minimum, the Navy is seriously considering a greater role for what might be called light carriers, or CVLs. The Navy might finally fix its next-generation carrier just in time for the requirements to change once again.
Navy Central to Future Conflict
The difficulties of the littoral combat ships and the Zumwalt and Ford classes wouldn’t be so troubling if the Navy wasn’t so critical in almost any conceivable vision of future conflict with China. As it stands, the Navy has been severely challenged in building a fleet capable of meeting that threat.
Other services, such as the Army, haven’t been immune to acquisition mistakes. The Future Combat Systems and Comanche scout helicopter come to mind. But ships are fundamentally different than individual weapons, land vehicles, and even aircraft. The development of naval systems is lengthy, but the construction of a new ship takes years, and each one is expected to last decades.
Complicating this calculation: The technology available when a ship is first conceived will be two or more decades obsolete by the time the vessel actually is launched. Betting on emerging technology that never fully pans out is nearly as dangerous. Navies are stuck with their mistakes far longer than land forces.
This makes the US Navy’s decisions during the next few years even more critical than most. The US is counting on the Navy to be the foundation of deterrence. The sea service needs to set a sustainable, low-risk course forward — or that foundation will crack. The Navy must do a much better job of designing a fleet in the next 30 years than it has over the last 20.