Holding the Government Accountable

The Nation’s Doomed 350-Ship Navy

U.S. taxpayers apparently don’t think it’s worth it
The Navy wants to decommission the cruiser USS Bunker Hill, shown here in the Pacific in May, in 2020, after 34 years’ service. (US Navy photo / Paul L. Archer)

The Navy follows election returns just as as closely as any ward boss. That’s why when Donald Trump was elected president last fall, it took the Navy just 38 days days to conclude that its May 2015 target to grow its current 278 -ship fleet to 308 vessels fleet was suddenly insufficient to defend the nation’s interests. That would take, it recalculated, 355 ships.

Of course, that lower ship count came when political oddsmakers were betting that Hillary Clinton would be elected president in 2016. The 355-ship fleet came in the wake of Trump’s campaign calling for a 350-ship fleet.

Ain’t democracy grand?

That’s where the chairman of the House Armed Services Committee’s seapower subcommittee comes into play. Rep. Rob Wittman, R-Navy, wants the service to keep 11 cruisers sailing beyond their 35-year lifespan. He’d do this by upgrading their hulls and mechanical and electrical system—a so-called “service-life extension program,” or SLEP—instead of retiring them beginning in 2020. “These assets are vital in reaching our goal of a 355-ship Navy,” the Virginia Republican told Defense News last week.

They say old soldiers never die, they just fade away. Sometimes, Navy warships don’t either. They’re simply SLEPed. It’s part of a push to build a bigger Navy under a Republican president, much as then-Navy Secretary John Lehman pushed for a 600-ship fleet under President Reagan (he made it to 594 in 1987 before the Cold War’s end dropped a depth charge on that ambition).

Ships are expensive, and warships are damn expensive. The Navy’s newest aircraft carriers are clocking in at about $12 billion each—which doesn’t include $5 billion for the warplanes needed to populate their flight decks. The Congressional Budget Office recently estimated that achieving a 355-ship Navy within 30 years would cost 60 percent more than what Congress has appropriated for shipbuilding over the past 30 years. Good luck with that.

So the Navy and its boosters are looking at “every trick” to boost the number of ships by stretching blue-water dollars, in the words of hull Houdini John Richardson, the chief of naval operations.

One way to do that is to keep current Navy ships sailing beyond their normal lifespan, like Wittman is pushing for the cruisers. A similar Navy notion to extend the life of its destroyers could cut by nearly half the 30-year timetable to reach a 355-ship Navy.

Another is to unload older vessels on U.S. allies, essentially expanding the U.S. fleet under foreign flags. Let them pay for operating, maintaining and manning them after the U.S. upgrades them. Wittman is championing this notion, too: he wants to provide several Oliver Hazard Perry-class frigates to allies. “They’re a much more modern ship than what a lot of these navies have,” Wittman told the DefenseTech website.

“And the good thing about it is,” he adds, “you can do these modernizations here in the United States, so the yardwork’s done here.” That’s a big deal for Wittman, given that the Navy and the shipbuilding industry are vital to his southeastern Virginia district. Wittman is co-chairman of the Congressional Shipbuilding Caucus and the chief House sponsor of the Securing the Homeland by Increasing our Power on the Seas (SHIPS) Act, which would write a 355-ship Navy into law.

It’s jobs in his part of Virginia, as well as tens of thousands of dollars in campaign contributions from shipbuilder Huntington Ingalls, which employs 20,000 locally, and other defense contractors, that keep Wittman attuned to their desires. The congressman has pocketed more than $700,000 in campaign contributions from defense contractors since winning a special election for his seat in 2007.

Once again, ain’t democracy grand?

There’s another reason for the seagoing shortfall. The Navy, just like the other services, likes new and shiny better than old and barnacle-covered. That’s why it has retired aging ships well before their retirement dates, forfeiting billions invested in designing vessels to last, so the money can be spent on newer boats. The Navy decommissioned many of its Perry-class frigates, for example, to free up dollars to buy its Littoral Combat Ships. “There were better places to spend our money at the time,” Admiral Richardson conceded in June.

The Navy and its boosters are looking at “every trick” to boost the number of ships.

But the rush to increase the fleet has the Navy eying some of its inactive rust buckets. “We’re taking a hard look at the Oliver Hazard Perry-class frigates,” Richardson said in June at the Naval War College. “There’s seven or eight of those that we could take a look at” to return to the fleet, assuming Wittman’s plan to give them to allies sinks. The final active-duty Perry frigate was decommissioned two years ago, and most of them are slated to be scrapped or provided to allies.

It seems counter-intuitive that the Navy is having trouble building to a 350-ship fleet when the Pentagon is getting as much money now, even accounting for inflation, as it did during Reagan’s buildup, when it was on the cusp of 600 ships. But backers of a bigger Navy point out that the share of the U.S. economy earmarked for defense has fallen from nearly 7 percent during the Reagan era to about half that today, although the relevance of this yardstick is dubious. Anyway, you can pick your own statistic to show that the Pentagon is either fat or famished.

Ain’t math grand?

All this means a reckoning is coming for the prospect of a 350-ship Navy.

Two naval experts recently acknowledged it’s all but impossible for Trump and the Navy to get to a Navy of that size. But Robert C. O’Brien and Jerry Hendrix, who favor the bigger fleet, at least have the guts to call for shrinking missions to match the smaller armada. The Navy, they say, could perhaps trim the 18 sea neighborhoods it deems vital to 14, and keep fingers crossed that allies would fill the vacuum.

O’Brien and Hendrix say it would take a fleet of 440 ships to do everything the Pentagon wants the Navy to do. But the Navy can never do all that the nation’s war-fighters ask of it. In 2015, in fact, it was able to meet only 44 percent of their requests. Political judgments are needed to weigh the risks the nation is willing to face when it trims its sails. The Navy has been trying to do more with less, leading to disastrous results highlighted by two collisions in the Pacific this year that killed 17 U.S. sailors.

“Given that the United States is now nearly energy-independent, a sub-300-ship Navy could…consider withdrawing the Fifth Fleet command element from the [Persian] Gulf,” O’Brien and Hendrix urge. That’s a suggestion designed to set every admiral’s hair afire (the nation has spent an estimated $8 trillion since 1976 to keep fuel flowing through the Strait of Hormuz and into your gas tank).

Or it could pull back on its post-World War II tradition of “forward presence,” steaming the world’s oceans and salt-water chokepoints to assure free trade. Instead, it could move to the “surge and exercise” model that existed before World War II (that’s a clue!), when warships hung around their home ports and only engaged in major exercises far away twice a year.

Forward presence is costly. Therefore, it’s ripe for competition—from Air Force warplanes, perhaps, at least in the eyes of airpower backers. “F-22s have in some ways replaced aircraft carriers as a formidable show of force when deployed to regional hotspots, as Raptor deployments to the West Pacific have had great success quieting bellicose rhetoric from North Korea and China,” Air Force magazine, the Air Force Association’s house organ, argued last month. But that’s not really true. U.S. naval warships have been the cop on the beat in every corner of the globe ever since World War II. When F-22 fighters and Air Force bombers show up, it’s more like a SWAT team arriving in armored vehicles.

Having sailed in warships, flown in Air Force warplanes, and bounced around inside Army and Marine armored vehicles, I think it’s the gray hulls of the U.S. Navy are best for showing Old Glory around the world. They don’t need anyone’s permission to traverse international waters. To U.S. allies, they’re the neighbor you love to have stop by your house and shoot the breeze over a beer or two. To foes, real or potential, they’re like the pesky, and perhaps dangerous, acquaintance that just won’t leave you alone.

Let’s face it. There’s a romance to sailing the seas aboard a warship that is unique. Not only is it your weapon, but it’s your home, too. So there’s understandable grief when a hull is taken out of service, early or not.

I just wish Rep. Wittman had tried to salvage cruisers a little bit earlier. Then he might have been able to add CG-33, the guided-missile cruiser USS Fox, to his roster. I spent a week aboard her in the Persian Gulf in 1987, dodging Iranian mines as the U.S. Navy protected some of that oil.

The cruiser USS Fox helped protect oil shipments in the Persian Gulf in 1987.
The cruiser USS Fox helped protect oil shipments in the Persian Gulf in 1987. Navy photo

Unfortunately, the Fox was decommissioned in 1994. After 20 years in the inactive fleet, she was towed to Brownsville, Texas. Ten years ago this week, International Shipbreaking Limited finished turning her into scrap.