Championing Responsible National Security Policy

Navy’s Plans to Counter China May Be Doomed by Shipbuilding Disasters

Business as usual will render the 546-ship fleet goal impossible
(Photo: U.S. Pacific Fleet / CC BY-NC 2.0)

The Defense Department has bold ambitions for the future of the Navy, centering on growing the fleet significantly in the next three decades. But based on the Navy’s track record of failed shipbuilding programs over the past 20 years, it is impossible to see how the service could bring its ambitions to fruition.

On December 9, the Navy released its 30-year shipbuilding plan to counter a rising China, calling for a 546-ship fleet by 2051. The new fleet would be made up of 403 manned battle force ships and 143 unmanned surface and subsurface vessels. This plan is even more ambitious than the one put forward by former Defense Secretary Mark Esper that would see the fleet grow to a total of 500 ships by 2045. To accomplish its 30-year plan, the Navy would have to grow its current fleet of 297 ships by 84%.

A change in administration likely presages some changes to the details of the Navy’s plans, including the final shipbuilding total, but we can still expect to see plenty of new naval construction in the coming years. Navy leaders are carrying on with the 500-ship fleet as their goal. The key assumption of China as the pacing threat is well entrenched for virtually all the key players on both sides of the aisle in the national security establishment. Anyone we can expect the Biden administration to appoint to leadership positions inside the Pentagon will almost certainly adhere to this key tenet of the national security hive mind.

The stated goal of the shipbuilding plan is to create a fleet that would survive a war against a peer navy and would be able to strike at long ranges. The new fleet would include more submarines, smaller aircraft carriers, and optionally manned surface and subsurface ships. The entire fleet would be linked together by a global communications network.

Getting to 546 ships is not simply a matter of adding 249 new hulls. The Navy must also replace the ships that are decommissioned between now and the projected completion date. The Navy plans to retire nine ships in 2021 alone, and an average of 10 per year through 2051. It plans to build 409 new ships during the same time period, or an average of 13.5 a year.

What we have now is simply a proclamation with no details, about a 500 Ship Navy by 2045.

former acting Navy Secretary Tom Modly

Even looking just at cost considerations, it is difficult to see how we would get to there from here. The Navy’s budget request for fiscal year 2021 includes $19.9 billion for shipbuilding. Under the current plan, the Navy expects to spend $147 billion to build 82 new ships in the next five years. The service’s annual shipbuilding budget would have to increase by nearly $10 billion a year just to reach a 355-ship fleet according to the Congressional Budget Office. Getting to 500 would mean adding at least an additional $20 billion in shipbuilding funds per year. And it would require a total annual Navy budget of more than $300 billion—far more than the $207.1 billion the service requested this year—to cover the sustainment and personnel costs to support a fleet of that size.

Based on those factors alone, any major fleet increase is unworkable, according to former acting Navy Secretary Tom Modly. “What we have now is simply a proclamation with no details, about a 500 Ship Navy by 2045,” he told Forbes. “Without a national consensus, and the corresponding funding for it, that number is meaningless, and the timeframe is strategically irrelevant.”

Beyond questions of costs, realizing such an ambitious fleet goal will be difficult for a service that has, for 20 years, a nearly unbroken record of pursuing flawed ship concepts and failed programs. Since the beginning of the 21st century, the Navy’s acquisition story has been one of spiraling costs and technological flops that are unlikely to survive in the heavily defended waters where they are expected to fight. The Ford-class aircraft carrier, the Littoral Combat Ship (LCS), and the DDG-1000 Zumwalt-class Destroyers have all been painful and expensive experiences. The Navy has already all but abandoned the Littoral Combat Ship and the Zumwalt programs, and leaders have begun looking beyond the Ford program.

Before the Navy embarks on a new push to grow the fleet, military leaders both in and out of uniform should see if the current fleet mix still works or if the Navy should move away from large surface ships and invest more in submarine and unmanned vessels. Whatever course they take, leaders would do well to look back through recent history to avoid repeating obvious mistakes.

With the Ford, Littoral Combat Ship, and Zumwalt programs, the Navy attempted to cram its ships with as many new technologies as possible. Construction on each began before engineers completed the development process on the new systems, which inevitably resulted in skyrocketing costs and schedule delays. Several technological goals were never realized, which, in the case of the Littoral Combat Ship and the Zumwalt, left the Navy with ships that could not perform their intended role in the fleet. Both will likely end up in the scrapyard without ever having provided service to compensate for the time and tax dollars poured into them.

Ford-class Aircraft Carriers

Aircraft carriers became the capital ships of the Navy during World War II. They serve as the centerpiece of the Navy’s main operational formation, carrier strike groups. The carriers are by far the largest and most expensive ships in the fleet. Because of this, the christening of a new class of aircraft carriers in November 2013 prompted much celebration.

As construction continued on the new USS Gerald R. Ford, that celebratory spirit faded when it became apparent that the new and risky major technologies incorporated into the design, numbering nearly a dozen, would cause the delivery schedule to be pushed back while the costs of the program inevitably rose. Navy leaders originally expected delivery of the ship in 2014 at a cost of $10.5 billion. The Ford wasn’t commissioned until July 2017, and ended up costing more than $13.3 billion.

Many analysts have questioned the continued utility of large-deck aircraft carriers, particularly against a peer military competitor. Retired Navy captain Jerry Hendrix put it this way: “We are building carriers now that will last 50 years and so therefore you’re making a 150-year bet that no one will figure out how to make this go away.” These concerns should not be lightly dismissed. While an aircraft carrier is a potent symbol of military power, this also makes them inviting targets. Advances in anti-ship missile technology have greatly increased the dangers to aircraft carriers, so questioning their continued relevance is hardly unreasonable.

The way the Navy has approached the Ford-class ships is certainly flawed.

Whether supercarriers are the right investment or not, the way the Navy has approached the Ford-class ships is certainly flawed. In the manner of nearly every Pentagon program, the cost and schedule of the new ship suffered due to the desire to reinvent the wheel on major ship systems.

Launching Problems

The Ford-class carriers are meant to replace the existing Nimitz-class carriers. The Nimitz fleet, while powered by nuclear reactors, uses steam to operate their catapults to launch aircraft and the arresting gear to land them. To launch aircraft, the new Ford-class carriers use an Electromagnetic Launch System, or EMALS. The system stores a massive electrical charge (enough to power 12,000 homes, a town about the size of Juneau, Alaska, for the three seconds it takes to launch an aircraft) and then quickly releases the current into electromagnets that push the aircraft down the launch track and into the air.

Navy leaders claim they decided to switch to the EMALS in part because the new system will be cheaper to operate over the long-term, as it requires fewer people to operate and is predicted to be easier to maintain. The jury is still out on whether EMALS will deliver on its cost promises, and testing has already shown the Navy underestimated the workload and the number of people necessary to operate the system.

The EMALS was also supposed to increase aircraft lifespan by using a more controlled release of energy than steam catapults during a launch, which was supposed to reduce the stress on airframes. But tests have shown that the system actually overstressed F-18 airframes.

EMALS also fails to deliver on the promise of maintainability. Its design makes it impossible for the crew to repair one catapult while others are launching aircraft. The Ford has four launch catapults so that (theoretically) if one fails, the ship could continue launching aircraft from the remaining three. The crews of the Nimitz-class carriers do this as a matter of routine because each catapult operates independently. An adversary does not have to sink an aircraft carrier to render it ineffective, as a few well-placed shots to the carrier’s deck could disable a catapult.

With the Ford’s system designed as it is now, the crew would have no way to fix battle damage in the middle of combat. The crew on the Ford has no way to electrically isolate each catapult during flight operations, raising questions about the system’s operational suitability. Sailors must wait until all flight operations have been completed and the entire system is powered down to make repairs to a failed catapult. Navy leaders should have caught this design flaw while the ship was still on the drawing board. Should multiple catapults fail, all flights may have to be suspended to allow repairs. That means the ship might not be able to launch any planes at a critical moment because the EMALS designers failed to provide independent power for each of the four catapults.

And so far, the EMALS has a poor reliability track record. According to the most recent testing report on the carrier, the Ford suffered 10 critical EMALS failures during its first 747 launches. That might seem like a reasonable record, but one failure in every 75 launches is actually 50 times worse than the 4,166 launches between failures the system is supposed to achieve per the contract specifications.

Landing Problems

Aircraft don’t really land on a ship; they essentially crash in a highly controlled fashion. Instead of rolling out to a stop on a conventional runway, a plane landing on an aircraft carrier has to catch a cable on the flight deck with a hook attached to the plane to bring it to a stop on the relatively short deck. The Navy went with unproven technology for the Ford’s system to capture aircraft during landings. Just like the EMALS, the new electrical arresting system has proven to be more of a challenge than the Navy expected.

Capt. Cassidy Norman pilots an F/A-18E Super Hornet attached to the “Gladiators” of Strike Fighter Squadron (VFA) 106, as it lands aboard USS Gerald R. Ford's (CVN 78) flight deck, Oct. 31, 2020.

Nimitz-class carriers use a hydraulically braked arresting system called the MK 7. When the hook on the landing aircraft catches one of the cables on the deck, the cables are braked by an engine inside the ship. This hydraulic arresting gear system has been in use since 1961, with several improvements over the years. But as a high-tech selling point, it’s a non-starter.

In part to secure increased development funding for the Ford program, the Navy replaced the proven hydraulic system with an entirely new electrical system, called the Advanced Arresting Gear (AAG). The original 2005 estimate for Advanced Arresting Gear development was $172 million. After work began, costs more than doubled to $364 million by 2009, and have since ballooned to well over $1.3 billion, an astounding 656% increase.

The Advanced Arresting Gear has the same failure rate as the EMALS, with 10 operational mission failures during the first 747 shipboard landings on the USS Ford. This makes it impossible for the Ford to meet its surge sortie rate requirements. And, in another design problem exactly like that of the EMALS, engineers made it impossible to repair Advanced Arresting Gear failures without shutting down flight operations because the power supply can’t be disconnected from the system components while flights continue.

Faulty Elevators

One of the most intractable problems with the Ford’s design has been the elevators used to move munitions between the ship’s decks. In keeping with the overall desire to use electrical rather than hydraulic or steam components, the Ford’s elevators are operated with large electromagnets, which were not fully developed before construction on the ship began. The carriers have 11 Advanced Weapon Elevators that—if they worked properly—are supposed to lift more than 20,000 pounds at 150 feet per minute as compared to the earlier generation hydraulic elevators that could lift 10,500 pounds at 100 feet per minute.

But as of the summer of 2020, only six of the 11 elevators have been certified as functional, with the rest expected to follow within the next year. Navy officials have blamed software problems as well as “tight tolerances,” or the precision fit of the elevator’s lifting mechanism, and “physical structures adjustments” for the faulty elevators.

The root of the problem is that the Navy pushed ahead with construction of the ship before developing a mature design for the new elevators, through a practice known as concurrency, or when manufacturers begin production before completing development.

F-35 Capabilities

For all of the time and money invested in the Ford program, taxpayers should be able to expect that the new aircraft carrier would be ready to handle every mission imaginable. But in perhaps the greatest example of acquisition malfeasance, the Navy did not build its latest aircraft carrier to launch and recover the latest aircraft. Under the original plan for the program, the Ford-class carriers would not be able to handle the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter. For a capability that should have been included in the original purchase price, the taxpayers will have to pay extra to have it added later.

You read that right. The latest $13.3 billion aircraft carrier can’t fully support the Navy’s newest aircraft. The USS Ford can launch and recover the F-35C, but the ship needs modifications on the flight deck like stronger jet blast deflectors to make the carrier “robust” enough to handle the extended F-35C launches and recoveries. The ship also lacks the necessary classified storage and work spaces to handle all of the data the F-35 collects and receives. Currently, only one of the Navy’s existing Nimitz-class carriers, the USS Abraham Lincoln, has been upgraded to handle a full F-35 deployment.

You read that right. The latest $13.3 billion aircraft carrier can’t fully support the Navy’s newest aircraft.

Navy leaders also originally intended for the second-in-class carrier, the CVN 79 USS John F. Kennedy, to be delivered without the F-35 modifications, but Congress had other plans. Lawmakers added language to the fiscal year 2020 National Defense Authorization Act to force the Navy to make the next carrier F-35 compatible. The Navy awarded a pair of contract modifications valued at a combined $315 million to Newport News Shipbuilding for F-35 modifications for the Kennedy.

The Kennedy is still under construction, which should make the modifications simpler to complete. The Ford was commissioned in 2017 and has spent a good deal of time at sea already, although it has yet to complete an operational deployment. Because construction on the first ship has already been completed, any modifications to it will likely be more difficult, and consequently more expensive. Once again, the taxpayers will face additional burdens due to the Pentagon’s short-sightedness.

The Navy Can’t Even Get the Toilets to Work

As if all of that wasn’t bad enough, the Ford-class carriers also have a plumbing problem. Rather than using a traditional sewage system, Navy leaders decided once again to reinvent the wheel and had the manufacturer install a new system similar to those used on a commercial airliner. According to the Government Accountability Office, the system suffers “unexpected and frequent clogging.” To deal with the problem, the Navy has to acid flush the sewage system on a regular basis, at a cost of $400,000 a pop.

The End of the Age of the Supercarrier?

The future of the program remains somewhat in doubt. The Navy’s original plan called for 11 ships, but former Navy Secretary Modly said in March 2020 the service is considering a new class of aircraft carriers beyond the four Ford-class carriers already on order.

A smaller carrier design would help avoid concentrating so much military force into a single target. But it would be better to explore different options altogether. Some of the missions provided by aircraft carriers could be reproduced by other, more survivable platforms. For example, carrier aircraft are often used to strike targets onshore. The same results can be achieved with cruise missiles launched from submarines. Future Navy force structure decisions should be made based on capabilities rather than rigid adherence to particular ship types.

The Littoral Combat Ship

Navy leaders announced in February 2020 that they want to retire the first four Littoral Combat Ships, signaling an admission of the program’s failure and the waste of billions of taxpayer dollars. The program’s shortcomings are legion and well-documented, including numerous engine failures, an unworkable modular design, and hulls too weak to survive combat.

The program began as part of an earlier Navy effort to grow the fleet by building a force of affordable “small surface combatant” ships. The LCS was envisioned as a ship with a modular design capable of being reconfigured for separate missions. At the program’s inception, Navy leaders projected each ship would cost taxpayers $220 million. To no one’s surprise, costs more than doubled to approximately $600 million per ship.

The program’s demise was all but inevitable due to its numerous conceptual flaws. One key flaw: The fleet is not uniform. Two competing designs were produced as prototypes; a single-hulled variant built by Lockheed Martin and a trimaran hull design originally built by an industry team lead by Austal. Navy leaders originally planned to select one for full-rate production but failed to do so. Instead, the Navy purchased two largely incompatible variants.

Neither hull design proved robust enough for the Navy’s purposes. The Austal-built USS Independence trimaran variant is made of aluminum, which is not an ideal material for a combat vessel, as the July 2020 fire aboard the amphibious assault ship USS Bonhomme Richard at the San Diego Naval Station proved. Testing on both LCS variants revealed that the designs lacked redundancy in key systems and that vital components were packed too close together and were vulnerable to damage by a single missile or torpedo strike. The Pentagon’s top testing official reported that “both LCS variants continue to demonstrate that neither LCS variant is survivable in high intensity combat.” High-intensity combat is exactly what the Navy expects if it is called to fight in the waters along China’s east coast, which are among the most heavily defended in the world.

Navy leaders projected each ship would cost taxpayers $220 million. To no one’s surprise, costs more than doubled to approximately $600 million per ship.

Navy leaders abandoned the ship’s modular design when engineers couldn’t get the mission modules to work properly despite sinking $7.6 billion into the project. Had it worked, the mission module concept would have made the LCS a versatile class of ships capable of performing several critical combat and maritime support roles including mine countermeasures, surface warfare, and antisubmarine warfare missions using modular mission packages.

The LCS’s most important planned role was mine hunting. This is of particular importance because the Navy’s minesweeping capability has eroded significantly over the years. Sea mines remain one of the most serious threats the surface fleet faces. The Navy currently has only 11 Avenger-class minesweeping ships and 29 MH-53E Sea Dragon helicopters to protect a fleet of almost 300 commissioned warships and more than 250 support vessels.

In spite of the massive investment of time and money into the program, the Littoral Combat Ships have not made a corresponding contribution to the fleet. The ships deploy at a rate far below that of the other major surface combatants. And when at sea, they frequently suffer catastrophic mechanical breakdowns and then spend lengthy stays in repair facilities.

In late 2015 and 2016, four of the six LCSs then in service suffered engineering failures within a span of nine months. The USS Milwaukee and the USS Fort Worth had mechanical breakdowns within weeks of each other when metal shavings and debris got into their combining gear. The damage to the Milwaukee forced the Navy to have the ship towed into a Virginia port. The USS Freedom was damaged in July when seawater leaked into the diesel propulsion system through a faulty seal. The USS Coronado broke down in August when a defective coupling in an engine shaft failed.

The fleet’s mechanical issues were so bad that not one of the ships deployed in 2018.

Despite an overhaul of the program that included restructuring the command and manning plans for the fleet, the ships continue to be a burden on the Navy. The USS Little Rock ended up getting stuck in Montreal for three months right after its December 2017 commissioning when a broken steering cable forced the crew to stop to make repairs. Winter blew in and the ship and its crew had to wait until it was safe to steam through the icy St. Lawrence River. The USS Detroit lost electrical power in November 2020 while returning from a Latin American deployment and had to be towed back to Port Canaveral.

As the program’s problems mounted, lawmakers and Navy leaders slowly soured on the LCS. The original plan for the class called for 55 ships and a total program cost of $37.4 billion. When the development challenges and costs grew, officials began slashing the size of the planned fleet. Today the plan is a total of 35 ships at a total program cost of $30 billion.

Navy leaders are not only shrinking the total buy, but are also planning to begin retiring some of the LCSs they already have. The Navy included the first four Littoral Combat Ships produced—Freedom, Independence, Fort Worth, and Coronado—on its list of ships to be decommissioned in 2021. The Navy’s budgeteers determined the cost to retrofit these ships into something resembling a combat-ready configuration, $2 billion over five years, was simply too high. The Freedom entered service in November 2008 and the Coronado followed in April 2014. The Coronado completed its only operational deployment to the Pacific in 2017.

The program serves as yet another cautionary tale for the insidious Pentagon practice of concurrency. Concurrency poses significant risks to taxpayers because weapons purchased before the development process is completed often require extensive modifications, at great expense, to incorporate design changes to correct problems discovered during testing. Sometimes, as in this case, the modification costs for underdeveloped weapons are prohibitive and the effort is abandoned. The weapons then become “concurrency orphans,” and are scrapped before providing useful service. While Navy leaders are right to decommission the four ships and cut the program short, taxpayers will still be stuck with the bill for the $2.4 billion worth of Littoral Combat Ship concurrency orphans and a fleet of underperforming ships that will never live up to the original hype used to sell the program.

Moving forward from the LCS program, the Navy plans to buy 20 new Constellation-class guided-missile frigates. The ships themselves will be based on an existing Italian design and built by Fincantieri Marinette Marine. Starting with a proven design will reduce some of the risks hazarded by the Littoral Combat Ship program, but others loom. The Navy designated Lockheed Martin as the program’s lead systems integrator and awarded the company a contract to outfit the new frigates with their actual warfighting systems.

The Congressional Research Service has warned that, in general, by using a private-sector lead systems integrator the government cedes to the contractor responsibilities it normally retains, reduces the program’s transparency, and erodes the in-house expertise of the services to manage their own acquisition programs. According to a 2010 Congressional Research Service report, “[Lead Systems Integrators] can have broad responsibility for executing their programs, and may perform some or all of the following functions: requirements generation; technology development; source selection; construction or modification work; procurement of systems or components from, and management of, supplier firms; testing; validation; and administration.” The arrangement creates potential conflicts of interest by creating a situation where the contractor could design requirements for the program that match its own products or those of the contractor’s own subsidiaries.

The Navy estimates the new frigate will cost $940 million per copy, but the Government Accountability Office has warned that the program is already on the wrong track because the estimate has not been subjected to an independent analysis. The new frigate may be a conceptual improvement over the LCS but it will likely be anything but a bargain for the taxpayers.

Zumwalt-class Destroyers

The ultimate shipbuilding flop in recent history is the Zumwalt-class destroyer. Navy leaders wanted to build a ship capable of shore bombardment, a role that battleships and their heavy guns once filled. In keeping with the Pentagon’s tendency to abandon proven technology for gee-whiz digital tech at every opportunity, the new destroyer would eventually be armed with laser cannons and an electronic rail gun straight out of a science fiction novel. But like many such efforts, the new technologies proved to be a developmental bridge too far and ended up bringing the entire program down with them.

The Zumwalt program began, much like the F-35 program, in the weeks following the September 11 terrorist attacks, when Congress threw open the budgetary floodgates for many military programs. The Navy launched the program that became the Zumwalt in November 2001, soliciting proposals for industry to design a ship that, as then-Deputy Secretary of Defense Paul Wolfowitz put it, “supports assured access to littoral regions and also develops the capability to defeat the air and missile defense threats the nation’s naval forces will face in the future.” The Navy selected Northrop Grumman to develop the design in April 2002.

Since the last battleship went to the mothball fleet in 1991, naval gunfire has been limited to 5-inch guns mounted on its destroyers and cruisers. The Zumwalts were to take over the fire support missions as their primary role and were equipped with the Advanced Gun System for the purpose. The new gun has a caliber of 6 inches, about the same as the Army’s 155 mm artillery tubes. The Zumwalt’s guns could strike targets at a range of 83 nautical miles with the rocket-assisted Long Range Land Attack Projectile. These rounds were designed for the Zumwalt’s gun and so were a highly specialized item, which caused their costs to skyrocket. Each round cost a staggering $800,000 to $1 million, or about the same as the more versatile Tomahawk cruise missile. Because of the costs, Navy leaders stopped purchasing rounds for the Zumwalts in 2016. Suddenly, the destroyer’s role fundamentally shifted from using big guns to support troops fighting onshore to using missiles to kill enemy ships at sea, a role already filled by several existing classes of ships.

Congress was sold on the program based on per ship cost estimates of $1.5 to $1.8 billion. But estimates nearly doubled six years before construction began on the first ship.

As we’ve seen time and again, the costs for the Zumwalt program grew significantly as the realities of building ships packed with underdeveloped technologies asserted themselves. Congress was sold on the program based on per ship cost estimates of $1.5 to $1.8 billion. But estimates of the costs to complete the ships nearly doubled in between 2004 and 2005, a full six years before construction began on the first ship.

The program fell into the Pentagon death spiral. Navy leaders attempted to salvage the program by cutting the 32-ship fleet they’d planned to purchase to stay within their budget, which drove the cost of each ship ever higher. What we are left with is a planned fleet of three Zumwalt destroyers with a mission vastly different from the one originally intended, at an estimated program cost of $7.8 billion per ship.

If the Navy were to follow the Zumwalt program’s path, it would take 100 shipbuilding programs to add the necessary 300 ships to reach the ambitious fleet goals. As a retired Navy commander said of the Zumwalt program: “So much wasted time for so little gain for the nation. I hate to say it, but this is also true—none of this should be a surprise to anyone. How as an institution did we go this far down this path?”

The Path Ahead

Beginning with the Obama administration’s “pivot” to the Pacific and current discussion of great power competition, or whatever the favored term is today, we are essentially on the cusp of a new Cold War. This will likely play out much like the first. The 546-ship fleet goal sounds very much like the Reagan administration’s 600-ship goal during the first Cold War. The Navy didn’t quite reach that goal, peaking at 594 in 1987 through a combination of new shipbuilding and recommissioning older ships pulled from the mothball fleet. The Navy can’t recommission many ships now, so the only way to reach 500-plus is to build. But the pursuit of overly complex, experimental designs will doom any such effort.

Navy leaders seem to be trapped in the mindset that they have to dazzle the world with transformative technology. This leads them to pursue programs that inevitably fail. The Navy’s decision-makers who gave the thumbs up when presented with glossy drawings and promises of technological masterpieces at a bargain knew they would be safely retired before the ships would put to sea, with many of them working for the very contractors who made the claims. They were aided and abetted by the members of the congressional delegations from shipbuilding states who were eager to send taxpayer dollars back home.

The shipbuilding failures of the last 20 years should drive home fundamental lessons for civilian and uniformed military leaders. Newer technology doesn’t automatically make for a more effective weapon. We should be pursuing the simplest possible tools to accomplish the intended task, and doing so reduces both risks and costs. If a promising new technology does emerge, it should be fully developed onshore and then tested on an existing ship to make sure it works at sea. We should stop spending billions of taxpayer dollars building new ships around unproven gadgets.

Of course, the idea of building simpler ships seems counterintuitive when Americans are almost daily presented with breathless reports of the imminent threat posed by China. These reports are accompanied by urgent demands for ever greater defense expenditures to purchase weapons to meet the threat.

Navy leaders seem to be trapped in the mindset that they have to dazzle the world with transformative technology.

Before we break the bank even further to build new ships like the planned USS Constellation, we should closely examine China’s intentions. Much has been made of the numerous defensive systems the Chinese military has built to prevent the U.S. military from approaching the coast of Asia over the years. International security scholars Stephen Biddle and Ivan Oelrich describe China’s A2/AD technology as “a series of interrelated missile, sensor, guidance, and other technologies designed to deny freedom of movement to hostile powers in the air and waters off its coast.” Creating such a network is inherently defensive in nature and a natural response to aggressive statements and actions by outsiders.

Even those moves that appear to signal a more aggressive Chinese naval strategy may in fact be a cover for a different goal. China has purchased and modified one decommissioned Soviet aircraft carrier and is now building three of its own. But Toshi Yoshihara and James Holmes, authors of Red Star Over the Pacific (required reading for both the US Navy and Marine Corps), say the People’s Liberation Army Navy “is taking an unhurried approach to developing carriers.”

Navy leaders and Congress should consider the possibility that China may be building aircraft carriers as a means of convincing the United States to continue sinking massive investments in our own carrier force. At more than $13 billion a pop, plus another $8 billion for the air wing, an American aircraft carrier concentrates more than $20 billion of military capital in a single, and rather enticing target.

The Navy seems only too willing to take the bait. The commander of U.S. Fleet Forces Admiral Chris Grady, responding to a report of a new Chinese aircraft carrier in September 2020, said, “Good on ’em. It makes the argument that carriers are important.”


Taxpayers are right to question the need for a 500-plus-ship fleet. Rather than setting an arbitrary number of hulls, civilian and military leaders should conduct a thorough study of the capabilities needed to affect an overall naval strategy. Many roles and missions carried out by traditional surface ships could be performed by submarines and unmanned vessels. Submarines are much more survivable in the kind of contested environment created by China’s defensive network and are a credible deterrent to aggression on the seas.

If in the end the nation’s civilian and uniformed military leaders decide a 500-ship Navy should be a national priority, the Navy must change the way it does business for such a goal to be within the realm of reasonable possibility. Two of the three largest shipbuilding programs of the 21st century so far have been failures, with the future of the third very much in doubt. The Navy will have little choice but to build far simpler ships based on proven technology.

The Navy already learned the hard way that just because something is newer, that doesn’t mean it is better. Following two deadly ship collisions, Navy leaders decided to replace overly complex touchscreen control systems with more traditional physical throttle and steering mechanisms. But purchasing simpler ships overall would go against every demonstrated instinct of the Navy and the defense establishment as a whole. It is doubtful that anything short of enemy ships appearing off the coast of California could shift the entrenched thinking.