Re-Cap on US Navy Series

USS George Washington

This week Time's Battleland blog has been running my three part series on America's shrinking, vulnerable, less capable, more expensive Navy.

Friend and colleague Chuck Spinney provides some lively commentary on the series; he expands on the background and meaning of the Navy's behavior; these are available at Battleland and CounterPunch.

Some might be interested in some of my sources for the Battleland Navy series and/or for specific page citations; the material available at Battleland (above) provides live links in the text; however, if you are interested in the page citations from many of those sources, I am providing below the original text which I sent to Mark Thompson at Battleland for his excellent and professional editing; this version includes endnotes with links and many specific page citations in the longer source materials, such as CRS, CBO and DOT&E reports. That endnoted text follows for any interested to get more background.

Part 1: If More Money Buys a Smaller U.S. Fleet, What Will Less Money Buy?

Part 2: More Than the Navy's Numbers Could Be Sinking

Part 3: Is the Fleet Steaming Forward...or Backward?

Troubled Waters: the US Navy Faces the Consequences of Its Own Decisions

Part 1: If More Money Buys a Smaller Fleet, What Will Less Money Buy?

During the third debate of the presidential elections, Barack Obama hammered Mitt Romney with a clever retort when Romney pointed out-accurately-that the US Navy had become "the smallest since 1917:" "We also have fewer horses.the nature of our military's changed. We have these things called aircraft carriers..."[1] Romney appeared to have been caught flat-footed and had no rebuttal nor even an explanation of what he meant with his numerical comparison of today's navy with that of 1917.

All over the internet I read comments about how foolish Romney was to not understand that the 2012 navy could easily sink the one we had in 1917; he clearly did not understand-they said-that today's navy was infinitely more capable: It may have been shrinking in numbers of ships in recent history, but each one is more effective-not only compared to any 1917 museum pieces but also to what is being replaced now. Moreover, no foreign navy can even begin to compare, they say: we have more aircraft carriers and at-sea strike aircraft than the rest of the world combined; we can deliver infinitely more precision guided weapons than the US Navy of Operation Desert Storm in 1991, and, as one widely respected analyst put it, "the more than 8,000 missile launchers on our surface fleet give it missile firepower greater than the next 20 navies all cases exceeding or greatly exceeding the rest of the world's fleet's combined."[2]

Just like Romney's "smallest since 1917," the data portions of these statements may be technically accurate, but they also are irrelevant, if not misinforming: the threats we face at sea are neither from the Kaiser's High Seas Fleet nor from anyone seeking to mirror image the US force. The threats our navy faces, just like the rest of our armed forces-come from known and unknown enemies who study us and are developing-more accurately, already have developed-potential ways to defeat us. Against those real threats, we are in terrible shape-possibly worse than we were in 1917 relative to the naval threat from the Kaiser. And, if we proceed with business as usual, the threats loom only larger.

Shrinking Numbers

If numbers mean anything, and they do, we are headed in the wrong direction. Even if it is not President Obama's conscious plan to shrink the Navy from its current number of 284 "battleforce" ships to 250, as Romney and his surrogates disingenuously charged, that shrinkage-perhaps more-is what is very likely to happen.

Keep in mind that since 2001, the Navy's "base" budget (not including the additional amounts to fight the wars in Iraq, Afghanistan and elsewhere) increased dramatically. However, since 2001 the size of the Navy's battlefleet shrank. According to the Congressional Research Service (CRS), during the George W. Bush years (2001-2008), the fleet shrank 11 percent (from 316 ships to 282)[3] as the Navy's "base" (non-war) budget grew 51 percent in inflation-adjusted ("constant") dollars.[4] With continuing budget increases, President Obama has managed to increase the fleet since 2008 by a grand total of two ships, to 284. These trends are longstanding: for decades, the unit cost of ships growing at a rate higher than the budget has meant more money buys fewer ships.

Recent analysis from the Congressional Budget Office (CBO) shows that the prospects for the Navy's growing in the future are quite dim. CBO estimates that to implement the Navy's current 30 year shipbuilding plan (to increase the fleet from 284 to the projected 310 to 316 warships) will require average annual spending of $22 billion per year,[5] not the $17 billion per year the Navy estimates. However, even the Navy's unrealistically low projection is well above the $11 billion for shipbuilding in the Navy's 2013 budget or the $12 billion it plans to seek, on average, for the next five years.[6] It is completely unrealistic to anticipate even the Navy's low-ball future spending levels: No one is anticipating the kind of Pentagon spending increases these higher shipbuilding figures will require, and for naval shipbuilding even to retain its current level of spending, let alone increase, will require it to "eat" spending elsewhere in the Navy's budget or in one of the other military services' budgets.

Neither is particularly likely. The Navy also seeks increases in other parts of its own budget, especially in other forms of procurement, specifically for the F-35C fighter-bomber (which will cost multiples to buy and operate compared to existing F-18 aircraft). As the Pentagon's and the Navy's budgets shrink in the foreseeable future, the money for an expanded Navy is simply not there.

In October 2012, the Vice Chief of Naval Operations testified to the inevitable naval force reductions; he estimated that the budget levels contemplated by the Budget Control Act's sequestration-i.e. spending levels just nine percent below currently projected spending levels-could result in a fleet somewhere between 230-235 ships in about ten years.[7] It is possible that President Obama's current budget negotiations with the Republicans on Capitol Hill may end up with a Pentagon budget not at low as that mandated by sequestration-at least for the short term-but spending levels even lower-over the longer term-are also highly possible. In any case, the major increases needed for achieving the Navy's current shipbuilding plan are not going to materialize.

The Effect of Unaffordable Ships and Planning Gimmicks

CBO has testified that a realistic long term inventory is somewhere between 170 and 270 ships, depending on the type of ships that the Navy seeks to buy.[8] Considering the Navy's strong preference for high end ships, the potential for further cost growth and CBO's substantially higher re-estimates, the number of actual ships is likely to be in the mid to lower parts of the 170-270 range.

For example, CBO estimates the new generation aircraft carrier, CVN-78, to cost $14.2 billion, not the $13.1 billion the Navy projects; CBO projects the "Flight III" DDG-51 to cost $2.4 billion, not $2.2 billion,[9] and another study found that CBO estimate may be $1.2 billion too low.[10] Also, CBO estimates the existing Littoral Combat Ships to cost $770-800 million and the for total program average to be $500 million per ship; meanwhile the Navy projects a $440 million unit cost (all in constant dollars). [11] The Navy's habitual under-estimating its own costs simply means that still more money in the future can buy only fewer ships, and if costs are even higher than CBO's estimate, which CBO says may happen,[12] it all gets worse.

None of this is helped by the way the Navy bureaucracy games its own shipbuilding plans. For example, although the Navy reduced the number of ships in the 2013 30 year ship building plan, compared to the 2012 plan, the cost of the new-smaller-plan is actually higher (again in constant dollars): the Navy removed many lower cost ships and added higher cost ones, while reducing the total number only marginally.

In doing so it also dropped 24 logistics ships which it knows will have to be added back in later on, thereby insuring that the funds projected to complete the fleet are even more inadequate,[13] and proving CBO was right to say that its own estimates may be too low.

In addition, the Navy arbitrarily assumed ships, such as destroyers, would have a lifespan of 40 years, rather than the 30 years that such combatants have typically served.[14] Recently, the Navy has attempted to retire some ships even before 30 years.

Finally, to achieve its increased fleet, the Navy's immediate plan is to decrease the number of ships built each year: with a plan that requires an average of nine ships to be built each year, the Navy plans to reduce the number of ships procured to seven in 2014 and eight in 2015.[15] In as much as it is the near term budgets that are the ones that actually occur, the short term plan to reduce shipbuilding should be taken as prologue for the most likely budget future.

Put simply, the Navy's under-estimates of its own costs, unrealistic projections of what money will be available, and shipbuilding plan gimmicks all add up to a fleet that will be declining in numbers, even with increased funding. In the likely event of less, not more, money, the negative trends will accelerate. The precise size of the future fleet is unknown, but it is unreasonable to expect it to retain its current size. The shrinkage will be exacerbated if the Navy retains its multiple shipbuilding psychoses: the number of battleforce ships may tend toward the lesser numbers (approaching 170) that CBO has testified to.

Troubled Waters: the US Navy Faces the Consequences of Its Own Decisions

Part 2: It Is More than Numbers That Could Be Sinking

The shrinking size of the fleet is just one variable in considering its adequacy: the ability to perform assigned missions, especially after withstanding whatever threats may exist, is a far better measure than mere numbers. As described by the Congressional Research Service (CRS), a core mission is to influence "events ashore by countering both land- and sea-based military forces of potential regional threats.including improved Chinese military forces and non-state terrorist organizations."[16] This is similar to the mission described by former Secretary of Defense Robert Gates: "to enhance.overall posture and capabilities in the Asia-Pacific region" with "numbers, speed, and agility to operate in shallow waters."[17] Whether or not these sentiments are only passing conventional wisdom or profound insight, they represent the current mission. Unfortunately, it is precisely those areas of operation where the mismatch between capabilities and threats is most disconcerting.

The Diesel-Electric Submarine Threat

To put it simply, if naval exercises in the last two decades involving foreign-nation diesel-electric submarines had been actual combat, most if not all, US aircraft carriers would be at the bottom of the oceans:[18] As many as ten US aircraft carriers have been reported "sunk" in these exercises.[19] The analytically conservative Congressional Budget Office (CBO) was alarmed enough to officially report "Some analysts argue that the Navy is not very good at locating diesel-electric submarines, especially in noisy, shallower waters near coastal areas. Exercises with allied navies that use diesel-electric submarines confirm that problem.. [For example,]Israeli diesel-electric submarines, which until recently were relatively old, are said to always 'sink' some of the large and powerful warships of the US Sixth Fleet in exercises. And most recently, an Australian Collins class submarine penetrated a U.S. carrier battlegroup and was in a position to sink an aircraft carrier during exercises off Hawaii in May 2000."[20] There have been many such exercise "sinkings" since then, including aircraft carriers Reagan and Lincoln.[21]

Moreover, the problem stems not just from the latest, twenty-first century diesel-electric submarine technology from the West, it occurs in the form of various earlier technology submarines built in Russia,[22] operated by China,[23] and/or available to various lesser navies, such as Peru's[24] and throughout the world.[25] The latter navies include North Korea's[26] and Iran's.[27] The problem was dramatically demonstrated when a Chinese Song class submarine surfaced-previously undetected-in the middle of a US carrier battlegroup much too close for comfort to the USS Kittyhawk in 2006.[28]

Nor is this problem new. When the US Navy still possessed diesel-electric submarines (until 1990), aircraft carrier and major surface combatants were routinely "sunk" in exercises-unless carrier advocates had the exercise ruling reversed for the sake of appearances. Indeed, the Navy was so neurotic about the repetitive success of this bureaucratically disfavored submarine technology that in the 1980s it declared classified an analysis of exercises demonstrating their high degree of success written by a congressional staffer in the office of Senator Gary Hart (D-Colo.) on the Senate Armed Services Committee based on open source materials. I came across the memo in a classified-materials safe while working at the General Accounting Office and was informed the Navy insisted that any public record of the analysis be suppressed via classification.

In the mid-2000s, the US Navy was finally rattled enough to start a Diesel-Electric Submarine Initiative (DESI) with allied navies, such as those of Peru, Columbia, Chile and Brazil,[29] to train in anti-submarine warfare and to even lease for two years-complete with crew-a modern Swedish Gotland class submarine to participate in US Navy exercises.[30] The Swedish sub and crew promptly demonstrated their proficiency by "sinking" a Nimitz class carrier, among other ships and submarines. The lease appears not to have been renewed, even though the Navy continued to have extreme difficulty in finding the Swedish sub at sea.[31] The non-solution of the problem would appear to have been described in 2008 by the to-be Chief of Naval Operations Admiral Jonathan Greenert, who demurely stated "We are not satisfied with [our progress] right now."[32]

Subsequent to that time, I have found no public reports of the results of exercises with diesel electric submarines-suggesting that either the exercises have stopped or the results have been suppressed. However, there is some indirect evidence that the exercises continue,[33] as well as indications of continuing difficulties in locating diesel-electric subs.[34] This very serious problem apparently remains very unsolved.

The Mine Threat

Diesel electric submarines are not the US Navy's only undersea problem: in the post-World War Two era 19 US Navy ships have been sunk or seriously damaged, 15 of them by sea mines.[35] In the 1980s "tanker war" in the Persian Gulf, the guided-missile frigate Samuel B. Roberts struck a 1908-design Russian mine and was kept afloat only after heroic damage control efforts by the crew. In 1991, during Operation Desert Storm, the Aegis cruiser Princeton and the amphibious warship Tripoli were both seriously damaged by mines. The Navy became sufficiently intimidated by the mine threat laid by Iraq that the Marines cancelled plans for an amphibious assault against Kuwait city.[36] Things have not improved since then: in 2012 the Navy conducted join anti-mine exercises with 34 allies in the Persian Gulf; over 11 days, 24 ships (including eight of the US Navy's paltry fleet of 14 minesweepers[37]) with 3,000 sailors found only half of the 29 simulated mines laid for the exercises.[38]

The Navy asserts that retiring and not replacing the specialized Avenger class of US mine hunting ships will result in an increase in anti-mine capabilities with 24 mine-warfare modules added, at times, to Littoral Combat Ships. That the capability may increase is entirely theoretical; the LCS mine countermeasures module has proven extremely problematic,[39] and operational testing of it will not even start until 2014.[40] It is a real question whether ships not primarily designed for mine hunting with organic crews that have little to no experience in such specialized tasks (but augmented by 38 mine specialists[41]) can outperform the specialized capability-albeit quite limited[42]-being retired with the Avenger class.

While the US Navy has ignored mine warfare, allowing capability to remain inadequate, others have not: China reportedly has 80,000 sea mines;[43] Iran has from 2,000 to 3,000, and worldwide 50 nations have an inventory of 250,000.[44] Just as primitive land mines (euphemistically called Improvised Explosive Devices) made an unpleasant surprise from the start of the Iraq war continuing to this very day in Afghanistan, sea mines, even primitive ones, constitute a threat to the US Navy that it has not demonstrated an ability to deal with effectively.

However, the US Navy is threatened not just from below the sea, but also from above.

The Air Threat

The first evaluation I was given when I joined the Government Accountability Office (GAO) in the late 1980s focused on the performance of the Aegis air defense system against anti-ship cruise missiles. We found that in highly unrealistic, that is to say obliging, tests Aegis generally performed at a mediocre level against its own criteria, and even though the Navy classified all but the vaguest and most mundane parts of our assessment,[45] it is possible to say, unclassified, that against the more stressful targets in terms of speed and altitude, the Aegis system performed well below that. Against the most difficult targets going at supersonic speeds at very low, sea-skimming altitudes, the test results were-to put it mildly-depressing: in tests using surrogates that were both slower and higher than the Mach 2 Soviet SS-N-22 Sunburn missile,[46] it was clear that the Aegis system could not be relied on for an effective defense of itself or aircraft carriers it was escorting.

Both China and Iran now possess that missile.[47]

Moreover, the Sunburn has been supplanted by the significantly faster and even lower SS-N-27 Sizzler, also now in the possession of China and Iran.[48] More than one Director of Operational Test and Evaluation (DOT&E) in the Pentagon has expressed serious concern that the Navy has not even been able to replicate the Sizzler in tests.[49] Worse, Russian arms dealers are now marketing a version of this missile that can be deployed and used from shipping containers on merchant ships or littoral craft.[50]

To make matters still worse, the Chinese are now developing an additional but very different anti-ship technology, an anti-ship ballistic missile, the DF-21D. It is also very problematic to defend against: so problematic that in February 2012, the current DOT&E reported "No Navy target exists that adequately represents an anti-ship ballistic missile's trajectory..[the Navy] has not budgeted for any study, development, acquisition or production" of a DF-21D target.[51] Apparently, we do not even know how good or poor our defenses are against this newer threat; however, previous Aegis performance against high angle, high speed targets suggests this is a serious problem awaiting solution.

If these very high and very low altitude, high speed missiles work as intended-and that is always a legitimate question-the US Navy has a very long way to go to demonstrate that it has the ability to intercept existing threats.

The threats from these missiles, sea mines and diesel-electric submarines have all been real and existing for decades. They have also been without an effective response from the Navy, which very much seems more interested in high visibility, high cost show-the-flag forces that are best usable against enemies like Afghanistan, Libya, and Iraq that have little, if anything, to use against us, and scant will and proficiency to use what they do have.

Our contemporary wars have amounted to little more than "clubbing baby seals" [52] at sea. We have been lucky in the past and escaped with only a few ship casualties; can we expect our luck to continue? One would hope that the Navy is effectively redressing these vulnerabilities, but instead there is evidence its capability to do so is decreasing.

Troubled Waters: the US Navy Faces the Consequences of Its Own Decisions

Part 3: Is the Navy's Capability Increasing or Decreasing?

The prevailing conventional wisdom holds that America's smaller fleet is more capable due to higher capability on individual ships. It is a perilous assumption.

Less Able to Fight than Ten Years Ago

To its credit, in 2010 the Navy completed a study of the surface fleet's manning, training, and equipment readiness. The Balisle Report[53] was a brutal assessment:[54] ship maintenance went underfunded for years;[55] one fifth of the fleet cannot pass inspections; aircraft and ships had junk as equipment and/or insufficient spare parts;[56] fewer than one half of deployed combat aircraft are fully mission capable at any given time;[57] training throughout the surface fleet has been inadequate; ships are undermanned, and returning ships are canabalized for parts to keep others running.[58] The fleet was in substantially worse shape than it was in 2001. A less comprehensive report from GAO[59] also identified some of these problems and trends.

The prospects for finding the future funding to address all this are bleak: the Navy plans to put its budget emphasis on new hardware, not maintenance,[60] and is not even certain that the limited funds it does seek for maintenance will be available.[61]

In 2012 the Navy claimed it had made progress in addressing the deficiencies, but one of its biggest defenders in Congress, Congressman Randy Forbes, R-VA, retorted "The Readiness trends for full mission capability rates suggest less than satisfactory performance,"[62] and Vice Admiral William Burke admitted as much, saying "I am concerned that we will not properly fund maintenance in the future."[63] Such worries will only be exacerbated as maintenance and training are further stressed with continued expanded deployments in the Persian Gulf and Arabian Sea and increased operations in the Pacific.[64]

The Navy's plans for future ships may exacerbate the negative readiness trends even further. In the face of insufficient qualified sailors for required maintenance at sea,[65] the Navy plans to address this kind of problem with "smart ships," such as the LCS and CVN-78, where technology, not people, provide the maintenance. The plan is to save money for doing this by deploying smaller crews, but it may all be very unrealistic: Admiral James J. Shannon, commander of the Naval Surface Warfare Center told National Defense magazine, "We realized we went too far [with 'smart ships']. We need more sailors. We can't handle maintenance, or watch standing.. We are going to wrestle with that throughout my lifetime and the next generation."[66]

There is also a survivability problem with these depleted crews in "smart ships." If one considers the higher manpower needs of ships in combat for damage control, there may be yet another area where capability is going backwards.

The question is not when the Navy will catch up with its readiness problems? It is, will they get even worse?

Are New Ships More Capable?

One needs to consider what additional capability individual new ships, even theoretically, bring to the fleet. In some respects, there may be no increase; in others there may be declines.

For example, both Navy[67] and public sources estimate the number of aircraft and helicopters carried by both the older Nimitz[68] and the new Ford class[69] of aircraft carriers to be from 60 to 90, depending on what is or is not counted. Their complement of strike aircraft is commonly described as up to 60 aircraft. Clearly, the new (twice as expensive) Ford class brings no dramatic improvement in the major measure of merit for aircraft carriers: combat aircraft on board.

However, the new Ford class is said to be able to generate more sorties of aircraft per hour with its new electromagnetic aircraft launch system (EMALS),[70] but it is not entirely clear it will work as designed when at sea, an issue of some concern to DOD's Director of Operational Test and Evaluation.[71] However, there is a problem even if EMALS does work and provides the marginal advantage of launching the same number of aircraft at a faster rate.

Stealth aircraft are notoriously bad at generating sorties. The F-117 was unable to fly more than 0.7 sorties per day in Operation Desert Storm, on average.[72] The B-2 was reported to fly only once every five to seven days in the 1999 Kosovo air war, and while it has never seen combat, the F-22 flew less than eight hours per month, on average, in 2011.[73] Even if the "stealthy" F-35C, the Navy's version of the new Joint Strike Fighter, can improve on the F-22 for availability, it is highly unlikely to be able to fly more than once every other day in any sustained combat. The ability of the CVN-78 to generate sorties with the F-35 is likely to be less than that today generated by Nimitz-class carriers with F-18s. With the F-35's inability to bring any significant improvement in terms of range, payload and maneuverability,[74] the F-35 is unlikely to produce any increase in per sortie capability[75] to compensate for its inability to get into the air.

Worse appears to be the case for the Littoral Combat Ship. It clearly offers diminished capability compared to some other navies' frigates, corvettes and even fast attack boats,[76] and it may be a step backward from the US Navy's own FFG-7 frigates.[77] Indeed, multiple[78] news articles[79] present a depressing picture of what the LCS is and is not.[80] DOD's Director of Operational Test and Evaluation repeatedly termed the LCS and its systems "deficient" in his most recent assessment, which not coincidentally also reported "LCS is not expected to be survivable in a hostile combat environment."[81]

The new high cost aircraft carriers, Flight III DDG-51 destroyers and Littoral Combat Ships represent the Navy's vision of its future. It is an apparition that is unaffordable, unlikely to meet real threats at sea, and unable to dominate regional powers as thoroughly as some seem to assume in the "shallow waters" that former Secretary Gates described.

While there are halting efforts[82] in the Navy to produce the riverine and coastal patrol combatants that are also badly needed for the littorals and could address some of the deficiencies, such programs do not even rate mention in official shipbuilding plans or commanders' descriptions of the Navy's future. Indeed, when the budget pinches harder, they are likely to disappear altogether.


As pointed out in part 1 of this series, the Navy is engaging in an unacknowledged program to shrink its own fleet, and as argued in part 2, it is not effectively addressing existing serious threats to its own ships. Current plans for the future do not redress these problems. Even theoretically, there is little if any improvement to be found in new ships like the CVN-78 and the LCS-even at added expense. Given the additional factor of still-declining material readiness in the existing surface fleet, the future prospect is for general deterioration.

There no visible likelihood of needed change coming from the top. Much has been made in Washington about a strategic "pivot" to Asia. The thinking is exemplified in an essay in Foreign Affairs magazine, "Strategy in a Time of Austerity,"[83] by Col. Andrew F. Krepinevich. The article is remarkable for its pervasive expectation of an era of open hostility with China and a virtual second Cold War becoming the justification for a panoply of high cost naval and air systems. A second article in Foreign Policy magazine, "Sea Change: The Navy Pivots to Asia,"[84] by Chief of Naval Operations Admiral Jonathan Greenert offers some specifics about the kind of naval systems the "pivot" advocates seek. Four top priorities are listed for "new capabilities focused on Asia-Pacific challenges," but they all amount to business as usual for shipbuilding, complemented by new bases and unmanned drones. Threats from anti-ship missiles are addressed as if they were fully in hand with little real adjustment, and diesel-electric submarines, mines and riverine and coastal combatants are not even mentioned. The "pivot" emerges as little more than a fulcrum to leverage more spending for business as usual.

If there is, indeed, to be an era of open hostility with China, the conventional wisdom to address it means an inadequate-but very expensive-Navy. If the "pivot" is actually just a device to prompt more spending for favored systems, the Navy will remain vulnerable to other threats that do exist-at very high cost. In either case, the Navy is on the wrong track.

When failed presidential candidate Mitt Romney attacked President Obama for permitting the fleet to decline to its 1917 size and when Obama and his surrogates retorted that modern capability more than compensates for the smaller numbers, they all failed to acknowledge extremely disturbing trends inside the Navy. Those trends (shrinking, inadequate forces at unaffordable prices) are replicated in our other military services.[85] Our political and military leaders are ignoring these problems. In fact, their plan is to make them worse.



[3], p. 58.


[5], p. v.

[6], p. 12.

[7], p. 12.

[8], p. 7.

[9], p. 22.

[10], p. 3.

[11], p. 23.

[12], p. iv, 10.

[13], p. iv.

[14], p. iii.

[15], p.4.

[16], p. 51.

[17], p. 56.


[19], see Appendix A.

[20], p. 137.












[32] Dan Taylor, "Antisubmarine Warfare 'No. 1' Priority; Greenert: Navy 'Not Satisfied' With Progress In Tracking Diesel Subs," Inside the Navy, 31 March 08, at (However link is dead.)




[36], pp. 5-6.



[39], p. 14-16.






[45], pp. 74-81.






[51], p. 67.



















[70], p. 4

[71], p. 116.

[72], p. 166.









[81], p. 141.