In the interest of providing a little more perspective on what the recent postponement of the Littoral Combat Ship downselect and what frequent criticisms of the program might mean for the future of the U.S. Naval force as a whole, you have to look at some of the figures--numbers of ships, yearly shipbuilding goals, etc.--that the Navy is projecting in its five and thirty-year shipbuilding plans.
A great analysis of the many budgetary factors the Navy must consider as it moves forward with the LCS program was published in the latest issue of the Naval War College Review. Ronald O’Rourke writes that while trying to hammer out a schedule to begin the big build of the expected 55 LCS hulls it wants, the Navy must first grapple with its FY 2011–FY 2015 shipbuilding plan that calls for fifty ships of various classes to be built -- an average of ten per year. O’Rourke charges that this does not “necessarily mean that the service has solved its long-term challenge of shipbuilding affordability.”
The Navy was able to fund this fifty-ship plan in part because twenty-five of those ships—half the total —are relatively inexpensive LCSs and JHSVs [Joint High Speed Vessel]. Since LCSs and JHSVs are to account eventually for about 25 percent of the Navy’s planned 313-ship fleet, they are temporarily overrepresented in the Navy’s shipbuilding plan.
O’Rourke crunches the numbers and finds that over the lifespan of the Navy’s 30-year shipbuilding plan, even if its shipbuilding requests are met, the Navy is currently projecting that it will face “significant shortfalls” in the numbers of attack submarines and cruisers/destroyers--even as the sustainment costs rise significantly. What’s more, after FY15 when the Navy builds less LCS and JHSV’s, it will start building a planned twelve replacement ballistic-missile submarines, which at $6-7 billion a pop, is equivalent to almost half of the service’s annual budget for new ship construction. In other words, something is going to have to give.
There are a host of things that the Navy and the Pentagon can do, of course, to try and rectify this growing budgetary problem, including increasing the Navy’s budget in real terms; identifying more cost-cutting measures; extending the service lives of ships in the current fleet; relying more on less-expensive unmanned platforms; and of course, make a concerted effort to train local coast guards and navies around the world to take more of a role in patrolling off their own coasts, lessening the burden on the U.S. fleets.
A few of these options, we all know, just aren’t going to happen. Given the constrained economic environment the United States--and the rest of the world--currently faces (England and France are sharing aircraft carriers!) defense budgets are only going to tighten. Add to that the fact that we have a Secretary of Defense who projects his intentions by asking a roomful of naval officers “whether the nation can really afford a Navy that relies on $3 [billion] to $6 billion destroyers, $7 billion submarines and $11 billion carriers,” and the budget question is effectively settled.
So, what to do? One of the options mentioned above--partnering with and training allies to share some of the maritime security mission--is a task that many in the Navy see as essential to ensuring the continued flow of goods across vital sea lanes that feed the “just-in-time” economic model that today’s industrialized nations operate under.
In the same issue the Naval Review, Admiral James Stavridis, head of the US European Command, and Lt. Cdr. Richard E. LeBron, explicitly call for more naval partnerships across the globe to help protect sea lanes. They single out NATO’s Operation OCEAN SHIELD, the EU’s Operation ATALANTA, and Combined Task Force 151—all supporting international efforts to combat piracy off the Horn of Africa—as excellent examples of successful collaborative, international, efforts at sea security. While the numbers of ships involved in each operation might be relatively small, “even more valuable would be increased inputs from overhead satellites and greater deployment of maritime patrol aircraft and long-range surveillance assets.” The U.S. Navy, of course, has started to push hard in the unmanned arena, as have the Europeans, as my colleague Andy Nativi reported yesterday.
When it comes to partnership, the U.S. Navy has been running its Africa Partnership Stations for several years now, where it trains local coast guards and naval forces in best practices for securing their own coastlines, but Stavridis and LeBron point to several NATO program that are bolstering “close cooperation and exchange of information related to antipiracy efforts between various players within NATO and between NATO, the EU, the UN, the African Union, and the Arab League,” and call for commercial ships to be added to this network for increased situational awareness on the high seas, since there are more commercial ships than military vessels operating at any given time.
Sticking with the theme of partnership and how it lessens the ultimate load that the U.S. Navy must bear around the globe is a piece by Coast Guard Cmdr. Sean Schenk in the Sept. issue of Proceedings. Highlighting U.S.-sponsored regional training centers, Schenk complains that the multiple, well-intentioned Navy and Coast Guard training, exercise, and equipment transfer programs to partner nations “are often compromised by insufficient follow-though,” and that plans “rarely look past the day” equipment arrives or an exercise winds up, and “comprehensive needs assessments for countries and regions are either lacking or not coordinated among government agencies.”
Sounds familiar, no?
Schenk’s solution is much the same as the one Stavridis and LeBron proposed: partner with regional and international organizations to assist in these missions. He points to several successful training programs in Malta and Kenya as evidence that with the proper guidance, funding, and long-term vision, local forces can provide some level of safety along their own coasts. While this alone won’t solve the Navy’s budgetary headaches, it is a vision for the future that more and more naval officers seem to be embracing.