A call for a 350-ship fleet by Fiorina isn't nuts, but the way Navy manages ships is.Sean Gallagher, ARS TECHNICA
30 September 2015
Carly Fiorina, the former Hewlett-Packard CEO turned Republican presidential hopeful, has gotten oddly specific about what size military she believes the US needs: 50 Army brigade combat teams, 36 Marine battalions, and a 350-ship Navy combat fleet (not counting support ships, hospital ships, and cargo carriers). She's proposed a retooling of the military that could cost more than $500 billion over ten years. Fiorina didn't come up with those numbers on her own – they closely matched numbers from a report on military readiness from the Heritage Foundation, the conservative think-tank, and numbers that Mitt Romney proposed during his campaign four years ago.
"350 is not a crazy number," Michael O'Hanlon, a senior fellow at The Brookings Institution specializing in defense and foreign policy issues, told Ars. "It's not the number I endorse, but it's not crazy, with all the tasks being assigned [the Navy]. Even in the late Bush and Obama years, we've seen a goal of 335 ships." And the last president to have a fleet of 350 ships was Bill Clinton, who O'Hanlon said "was not an uber-hawk."
The numbers, while appearing to be part of a detailed plan, don't mean much alone. There's little disagreement (at least among defense analysts) that the military needs to be strengthened. But even meeting the much-less-specific call for military spending that Donald Trump made from the deck of the USS Iowa recently ("We're gonna make our military so big and so strong and so great and it will be so powerful that I don't think we're ever going to have to use it [because] nobody's gonna mess with us") requires an understanding of what exactly "strong" is supposed to mean.
Turning And Burning
It's not a problem that massive quantities of new military technology alone will solve. While consumer and business technology has grown in capability exponentially, while getting less expensive over the past three decades, military technology seems to get more and more expensive – even when defense contractors draw on commercial off-the-shelf technology.
That's particularly true of the Navy, which has been shrinking in size since the first President Bush declared a "peace dividend" at the end of the Cold War. As of today, the US Navy has 272 ships active in the fleet – the smallest overall since 1916. "In the 1980s, we almost reached 600 ships," said Eric Wertheim, author of the Naval Institute Guide to Combat Fleets of the World.
That's not to say that the Navy is in danger of being outclassed any time soon. “Our Navy, when you count gross tonnage, is still more powerful than any Navy in the world,” said O'Hanlon. "We have large deck amphibious ships and air craft carriers that other countries don't. We're still even more ahead [of potential adversaries] than the numbers would imply." But both O'Hanlon and Wertheim noted that even with stronger individual ships, a smaller fleet creates greater risks – risks created by not being able to maintain the sort of presence worldwide that the Navy is being called upon for. In the event that things heat up somewhere where a Naval presence is needed, there's not a reserve of ships ready to draw from to respond. And you can't just build ships when you need them.
The Navy is already operating beyond a sustainable capacity. Even with reduced maintenance schedules, "ships now deploy for eight months or longer now instead of six," said O'Hanlon, and repairs are put off so the ships stay available. As a result, the fleet and the sailors who crew its ships are becoming a bit frayed at the edges.
"If you do the math, alleviating the Navy's burden of deployment would require 15 percent more fleet capacity," said O'Hanlon.
That's about 41 more ships, which would bring the Navy to a fleet of 312. But that's just to sustain current operations and doesn't address future needs.
New combat ships, like the Air Force's new combat aircraft programs, are terribly expensive – at least the way the US government buys them. And as with the Air Force's F-22 and F-35A programs, the Navy's shipbuilding programs over the past decade or so have been slashed back in mid-stream because of rising costs – reducing the total construction, which in turn leads to even higher costs for each ship built. Starts and stops in programs have also increased costs. The Navy has ordered more Arleigh Burke destroyers at $1.8 billion per ship, because the Zumwalt and its sister ships in the DDG-1000 class will cost over $3 billion (and as a result, the class has been reduced to three ships). "The process makes cost grow tremendously," Wertheim said.
But the Air Force has been able, sometimes at Congressional insistence, to fill mission roles by modernizing older aircraft (such as the B-52). The Navy has already ditched its older hardware. As the service tried to fund its new ships, the Navy permanently reduced the number of ships already to save tens of millions of dollars per ship on operations while spending billions on a smaller number of ships that would, in theory, operate less expensively longterm.
"People don't realize that one of the biggest costs of any ship is its crew," said O'Hanlon. So how large a fleet the US can sustain will in part be driven by "how manpower-efficient the ships are."
The Littoral Combat Ship and the Zumwalt (DDG-1000) class ships were designed with the idea of improving manpower efficiency – requiring a fraction of the crew required for the ships they are intended to replace. A lot of that comes through automation, making Navy ships more like their commercial counterparts. On the LCS, for example, the Officer of the Deck (the officer in charge of directing the movement of the ship on a watch team) actually "flies" the ship personally from a cockpit-like console; older ships require two enlisted watch standers to
steer and signal orders to the engine room at the OOD's commands.
Even so, the Navy's decisions on its existing ships have made a smooth transition between the two impossible, leaving gaps in capabilities. Two entire classes of combat ships – the Spruance-class destroyers and Oliver Hazard Perry frigates – were retired at the end of the last decade by the Navy, while Wertheim said both ship classes could have been upgraded and their service lives extended.
"The Perry class – if you look at what Australia did with theirs, they totally upgraded them," he said. "They added vertical missile launch tubes, and they are now really powerful warships that have evolved since the 1980s. The US Navy could have done it as well, but didn't take as good of care of them and wound up having to retire them."
The Perry class, with a crew complement of 200, was supposed to be replaced by the LCS (which originally was to have fewer than 50 crew). But because of delays in the LCS program, the Perry class was retired much faster than the LCS ships could replace them. Only one Perry frigate, the USS Simpson (FFG-56), remains active in the US fleet – and was slotted to be decommissioned this month. Others have been sold to other nations' navies, or scrapped.
The fate of the Spruance class of destroyers was even more swift. The ships, some of which had been upgraded with vertical launch tubes, could have been kept in service with proper maintenance through 2019. But the Spruances are now gone completely – only one ship remains afloat, as a remote-controlled test ship for self-defense weapons systems. The rest were scrapped, turned into artificial reefs, or "disposed of in a fleet training exercise" – sunk.
Pacific Pivot Or Just Your Usual Shuffle?
Part of the reasoning behind the Navy's resizing has been a "strategic pivot" toward the Pacific. "China is rising [as a naval power]. Other countries have been doing things that aren't desirable from our point of view, and we need more capability in the Pacific than we've had," O'Hanlon said. "So having a larger navy in that area would be a minimal requirement... we would like to increase the proportion of the fleet in the Pacific and actually get more presence there."
Many of the current demands on the fleet (including humanitarian operations and simply projecting a presence in areas around the world) could be conducted by relatively less expensive ships like the LCS and the Joint High Speed Vessel (JHSV) ships now being built. The JHSVs, based largely on commercial long-range ferry designs, are capable of carrying company-size Army or Marine Corps units and supporting transport helicopters. They have been pressed into roles typically served in the past by frigates – but only require a crew of 22, compared to the 200 or so that manned an Oliver Hazard Perry class frigate. The LCS class, built originally with a crew size of 40 or so in mind plus "mission" crews for different modules, has seen its crew grow to nearly 65 by comparison – still nearly a quarter of the crew of the Perry.
If the numbers issue was one of just presence, the LCS and JHSV ships could fill the gap relatively quickly. The Spearhead class JHSVs cost $180 million each to build. The LCS ships were originally supposed to cost just $220 million to build, though there were substantial cost overruns, and the LCS class is now going through a redesign to make it more frigate-like in firepower. But "you could build 20 LCS with what it costs to build one aircraft carrier," O'Hanlon said. "The Navy could change the configuration of its fleet and get to 350 fairly easily."
The problem faced in arriving at what size the fleet should be, however, isn't just about stopping its shrinkage. Part of the problem Navy leadership faces now is the lack of clarity over what enemy the service needs to prepare to fight.
"If the future is going to be about a potential war against say China or Russia," Wertheim said, "SSNs (nuclear subs) are going to have a larger role, and we'll want more of them. If it's about low-risk contingency operations, then JHSVs and LCSs will do the job. You have to make sure that your ship building plan supports whatever the strategy is, and not the other way around."
The risk of not doing anything, Wertheim added, is that "you lose the ability of allies to count on us and let other navies fill that vacuum. You cannot respond as quickly as you'd like to crises. There's nothing wrong with allies shouldering some of the burden, but in the end you can't always count on your allies. There are times when we have to operate independently."
Wertheim said that rather than just coming up with a number, there has to be a plan from leadership "really spelling out what the Navy wants to get done and what the Defense Department expects of the Navy in the future. They have to be realistic about where things are now, in that there's not enough ships or crews to go around."
Ars attempted to contact the Heritage Foundation for comments, but received no response
Sean Gallagher is Ars Technica's IT Editor. He is a former Navy officer, systems administrator, and network systems integrator.