A Fleet Design In Decline


Following the release of the Maritime Strategy for 21st Century Seapower, the Navy almost immediately tied budgets to strategy when John Morgan, as part of telling the story of 21st Century Seapower, claimed every budget is a strategy. Six years later under CNO Roughead and now CNO Greenert, it should be fairly obvious to everyone that strategic thinking in regards to Naval force structure is almost exclusively a military political strategy for dollar and industry share. Strategic guidance and thinking manifest as plans towards what a community can buy to build upon what a community already has.

I’m sure there is a sophisticated process behind how the Navy designs the future U.S. Navy, but I’m also convinced that sophisticated process wouldn’t survive a single debate with many competitors outside of OPNAV. If one stays with the same plan long enough expecting a different result, even a layman will eventually be able to point out the problems. In the case of the Navy’s current fleet design under the plan released with this years budget, the math and real numbers suggest to this layman that the fleet as designed has peaked and is now in decline, indeed the Navy’s own numbers highlight this very well.

I don’t care about 30 year projections when it comes to shipbuilding. Short, Medium, and Long term trends and activities to me are measured in 5 years, 10 years, or 15 years respectively. Anything projected beyond 10 years is probably unreliable, and anything projected beyond 15 years except for ship retirements is surely fiction. For those playing at home, Military Times has all the PDFs you need to see the Navy’s new plans. As I look at the new plan I am primarily focused on the next ten years and the last ten years, since the fleet numbered 297 ships in 2003 and is expected to number 297 ships in 2023 based on the Navy’s own plan. I will also look at retirements beyond 10 years where applicable. As of May 20, 2013 the U.S. Navy has 284 ships.

This link is the USN Plan for FY2014 (PDF), and this link has all the slides nice and neat(PDF). A lot of what I am about to discuss can be found there, with the rest of the details explain in future blog posts over the next few days.

The U.S. Navy’s Big Plan FY2014

The Navy makes clear the following planning assumptions.

  • Battle force inventory      of the “2012 Navy FSA” will remain the objective of this plan.*
  • In the near term, the      Annual budget for Navy shipbuilding will be sustained at the levels of the      FY14 President’s Budget (PB14) through the Future Year Defense Plan      (FYDP). In the mid-term, annual budget will remain at appropriate (higher)      levels,; and in the far term, be sustained at appropriate levels (slightly      higher than current historical average).
  • All battle force ships      serve to the end of their planned or extended service lives. **
  • The DoN will continue      to acquire and build ships in the most affordable manner.

* FSA means Force Structure Assessment.

** Except for those that don’t

I cannot explain the third point, except to say it is insulting. How can all battle force ships serve to the end of their planned or extended service lives when the Navy, down on page 21 of the same report, retires 7 CGs and 2 LSDs before their service lives are up? Glad you asked. Basically the Navy is moving these ships to a reserve status so the Navy can say those ships aren’t technically retired early.

The unspoken planning assumption is that the President’s budget completely ignores sequestration. We’ll see how that turns out.

By 2023 the fleet will look different than today

The fleet increases the number of CVNs. The Navy had 12 CV/CVNs in 2003, has 10 CVNs today, and will have 12 CVNs in 2023. The Navy is sending a clear signal with this budget that the Navy will field 11 aircraft carriers (which is the legal requirement) until at least 2040 under current plans. I personally found it just a little ironic that the 11 aircraft carrier law is just about the only law that the Navy actually seems to care about in the entire shipbuilding plan.

The fleet increases the number of large surface combatants from 85 today to 87 in 2023, but by replacing CG53s with DDG51s, the overall number of VLS cells drops by over 500 by 2023. Even as the numbers of large surface combatants remain relatively constant throughout the 2020s, the number of total VLS cells will decline by 880 throughout the entire fleet by 2028. It is also worth noting all the DDG-51 Flight Is and Flight IIs that make up the bulk of the current ballistic missile defense fleet of the U.S. Navy will apparently be retired from 2028-2034. To sustain this, the Navy expects to build either 2 or 3 DDGs at the cost of a DDG-51 Flight IIA ship from FY15 until forever.

The fleet decreases the number of attack submarines from 55 today to 48 in 2023. The total will actually fall to 42 by 2029 and never recovers to above 50 throughout the rest of the plan, and the plan never reaches the requirement of 52. The VLS payload module for Virginia class SSNs is not included in the budget, and will cost about $400 million per submarine. The SSGNs will retire without replacement in 2027 resulting in a total loss of VLS capacity of over 600 from the submarine force.

The fleet of 31 amphibious ships today will decline over the next few years but recover to 31 by 2023. There are only three amphibious ships built over the next decade until 2023, 2 LH(X) and the LSD(X), meaning two first in class ships. Noteworthy the 31 ship amphibious force could legitimately be 33 ships if the 2 LSDs weren’t placed in reserve in FY15. Also noteworthy that with the upcoming retirement of USS Denver (LPD 9) and USS Peleliu (LHA 5) the Navy has two legitimate chances to convert amphibious ships into more AFSBs of different types. If you add Ponce (AFSB1) that gives the Navy 36 amphibious ships plus the MLP squadron, which in my book is a legitimate 2 MEB force. But too much wishful thinking, because in the end it’s only 31 amphibious ships according to the plan on paper.

The combat logistics force of 31 ships in 2013 will reduce to 29 ships from now until forever, and under current plans the combat logistics force will be the smallest it has been in about a century. I have never heard a compelling reason articulated why the Navy would shift to the Pacific Ocean, and in doing so would reduce the size of the combat logistics force. I am sure there is a complicated reason for this well beyond the understanding of this layman observer.

All of the frigates and dedicated mine ships either already have been or will be retired by 2023, and the featured new additions to the fleet since 2003 and until 2023 will be 38 Littoral Combat Ships.

And for the record unless all public data on the F-35C, including that of GAO and CBO, is wildly incorrect, there is no math on the planet that suggests the Navy can field 10 carrier air wings in 2023 that are identical with 10 F-35Cs squadrons and 30 F-18E/F squadrons unless naval aviation gets a considerable increase in funding. I haven’t seen this discussed anywhere, but the numbers for a little basic math and historical comparison is there to do some estimating. The Navy is going to fall billions short, unless flight hours are going to be down considerably on existing Super Hornets (which may be the plan?).

The current U.S. Navy plan narrative goes something like this.

Naval Aviation

The Navy will pay to maintain the 11 big deck carrier requirement. UCLASS will be ISR only through at least 2025, and as such has joined the E-2D and EA-18G in N2/N6. N98, with their current “all in” approach to the F-35C and “your out” approach to UCLASS, has effectively sucked all the money out of every other community in the Navy. The CVN carrier air wing is on the verge of remarkable cost efficiency with five different models of aircraft using only five different engines; specifically the F-35C, the F-18E/F and EF-18G, the E-2D, UCLASS, and the MH-60R and MH-60S helicopters. At the same time, the entire platform and system model has become so expensive that today the Navy can only fully maintain 7 carrier air wings, with 2 carrier air wings suffering from training restrictions – 9 total today. How the Navy ever expects to afford 10 identical carrier air wings for 11 aircraft carriers in the future is a feat of financial magic yet to be revealed, and will almost certainly require a significant increases in funding. It is hard to see a scenario where the CVN of the future will ever be as efficient as it has been over the last decade, because that simply isn’t ever going to happen with F-35C. As a result, the CVN force will almost certainly decline in capability over the next ten years relative to today.


The attack submarine force will decline to far below requirement just as the ballistic missile submarines are being built. The SSGNs will be retired without replacement resulting in a loss of over 600 VLS cells from our submarine force over the next ten years. The payload module for the Virginia class submarine is apparently not in the budget plan, meaning to sustain current VLS capacity in the submarine force the Navy will require a significant increase in funding per attack submarine to fill the gap. As a result, the SSN force will almost certainly decline in capability over the next ten years relative to today.

Large Surface Combatants

The retirement of the CGs and by replacing those large surface combatants with DDGs will result in a net loss of almost 900 VLS cells throughout the surface fleet over the next 10 years. All new construction DDGs are priced at the remarkably efficient price of the Flight IIA, despite the need to add the new AMDR radar and despite Sean Stackley all but conceding in testimony that all new DDGs in the Flight III configuration will lack the power necessary to field the advanced weapons like lasers and rail guns currently in development for the surface force without major modifications, indeed often coming at a trade off for even more VLS cells or hanger space. As a result, the major surface combatant will almost certainly decline in capability over the next 10 years relative to today.

Amphibious Ships

The fleet of 31 amphibious ships today will decline over the next few years but recover to 31 by 2023. By every standard the amphibious force of 2023 will be more advanced and more capable than the amphibious force of today, but just because the Navy gets the ship portion of the amphibious force right doesn’t mean the Marine Corps will get the ship-to-shore connector part right. I am a believer that the F-35B and MV-22 is a legitimate 21st century capability, but this need for speed requirement in AAV replacements has me wondering if the Marine Corps is too stuck on old ideas to come up with a 21st century way of war from the sea. I’ve never heard of such a thing as littoral warfare without Marines, and yet instead of building 21st century capabilities on land and sea, the Marine Corps seems stuck on the idea of a 2 MEB Okinawa style invasion. The littoral property that is going to require a 21st century Marine Corps isn’t the beach, it’s the oil platform and the 300,000 ton VLCC that if sunk, instantly creates the 2nd largest environmental disaster in recorded human history in some neutral powers fishing spot. In 2023 the U.S. will have a 21st century amphibious force, but it is still unclear if it will be fielded with a Marine Corps stuck in a 20th century mindset.

Mine Warfare And Small Vessels

Over the last ten years the Navy has retired 12 MCHs and over the next ten years the Navy will retire the rest of the original 14 MCMs. It could be suggested these 26 dedicated mine ships are being replaced by 24 Littoral Combat Ships with 24 MIW mission modules. When the latest SAR comes out (hopefully Thursday) we’ll look at the lifecycle costs of this in detail, but until then I’d just point out that based on FY12 numbers it would appear the LCS + MIW module as a mine warfare replacement for these two vessels is going to cost the Navy almost $1 billion a year.

Now obviously the LCS + MIW module is not the same as coastal minehunters or minesweepers. LCS can sweep a larger minefield, can self-deploy to the minefield threat, is much better armed and defensible than mine ships, doesn’t require Sailors to be in a minefield, and in theory the ship can be used for something other than mine detection and clearance.

In 2023 the Navy will have 38 LCS, each with 2 crews and it is likely several of these ships will be forward deployed to Middle East and Pacific region areas. It is still very unclear how effective the LCS will be in any role, or what exactly the ship will bring to the fight. The LCS does not add combat power to the fleet, and the degree to which LCS is a legitimate networked sensor capability is still very unclear.

Theory Meets Reality

I see all the promise of increased capability in the FY14 Navy plan as evidence that the Navy plan is a theory of advancement that fails to cloak the reality of decline. In theory, mission modules are great. In reality, mission modules are still very far from a real capability today. In theory, UCLASS is the future of naval aviation strike and the savior of the CVN. In reality, UCLASS is in N2/N6 and isn’t even seen by the N98 crowd as a naval aviation strike platform yet. In theory, Large Diameter UUVs will pick up the slack of the reduced SSN force and impending loss of SSGN strike capacity. In reality, LDUUV is a PPT slide. In theory, five engines for five platforms and EMALS and greater efficiency and stealthy F-35s all makes for a great CVN capability. In reality, if you buy 10 CVNs, the answer to how much the CVN capability costs is simple – the cost is ultimately less of everything else in every other Navy community from now until forever, and that is a neverending decline with no evidence anywhere the CVN is capable of picking up the slack of what is being lost. In theory the surface combatant force is getting better radars and better missiles and can shoot down ballistic missiles. In reality, fewer VLS means less offensive strike by the SWOs who are being relegated to defending HVUs, and in my read of naval warfare, playing defense at sea in the missile era is a long term loser.

In theory, everything in the Navy is great. In reality, the current fleet design has apparently peaked, and from here going forward everything under the current fleet design is more expensive. The Navy is trading advanced ISR capabilities for strike capabilities, and in fact every community is significantly increasing ISR while legitimately decreasing strike. It’s the trend of the current fleet design, and only through PPT promises does that trend look any different at some distant future point.

Finishing The Kill Chain

The only areas the Navy Plan is actually advancing seapower is with total CVNs, overall amphibious force capability, and the Littoral Combat Ship. Unless the combined capability of the CVN in 2023 and the LCS in 2023 is superior to any combination of networked systems fielded today, this Navy Plan is a course towards irrelevance for the U.S. Navy.

The proof is in the numbers. The proof is in the math. Ultimately, the proof is the plan provided by none other than the U.S. Navy. This plan needs lots of money just to be executed as is, even more money to make the adjustments necessary to fix the obvious flaws, and in my opinion it needs lots of work and critical thought to fix some areas that are consuming limited resources with limited, marginal, or altogether unclear advantages.

The current fleet design is one of naval decline because it favors doing the same thing the same way and expecting better results after a decade period where efficiency in fielded capability peaked, and is now slowly declining with the addition of new evolved solutions. To make matters more complicated, all competitors to the U.S. Navy are building capabilities that specifically attack the weak links of the current fleet design – weak links like the CVN which is numerically limited but consumes an overwhelming percentage of total fleet capabilities and investment, and weak links like a numerically challenged logistics force.

Less offensive capabilities on and under the sea has made the Navy even more reliant on the limited number of aircraft carriers, and can anyone in the Navy explain why the F-35C is the only platform in the 3 major communities that is adding a new strike capability to the fleet? The proposed Flight III sure doesn’t advance the surface community towards the future, the payload module for Virginia is unfunded, the LCS surely isn’t adding notable combat power, and the UCLASS is ISR only?

Sorry, but my read of Wayne Hughes is that we need to strike effectively first, and while I agree winning the information/communication battle in any environment is a critical enabler, it also means Navy must be capable of putting warheads on foreheads at the point of contact. That second part is not evident in the current fleet design based on what I see in the Navy’s latest plan.


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