I’ve said this before but it’s becoming ever more true with each passing day: a ten year moratorium on new construction of ships and aircraft wouldn’t be a bad thing. In fact, at this point, it would be highly beneficial.
Wait, you say, we can’t do that! We’d fall behind our enemies! The shipbuilding and aircraft industries would fail and we’d lose our industrial base! Our technical expertise would vanish! Crops would wither and die! The world would end! ComNavOps has really lost it this time!
Well, the last part might be true but the rest is completely false.
Consider where we’re at right now. We’re procuring our little hearts out which is exactly what your initial reaction says we should be doing and what do we have to show for it?
- We have a JSF that is going to deliver a limited capability aircraft (relative to the current threats and needed missions) that is going to be borderline obsolete by the time it reaches squadron service.
- We have a fleet that is steadily shrinking.
- We have a Burke Flt III coming that even the Navy says can only meet a portion of the required AMDR performance spec and will have no growth margin.
- We have a looming SSBN construction program that will cripple Navy shipbuilding budgets for a decade.
- We have a fleet that is hollow and getting worse every day due to systematic deferred maintenance so that funding can go to new construction.
- We have an LCS that has no combat capability but will make up a third of the combat fleet.
- We have an LCS replacement that will likely be just an upgunned LCS with all the same inherent structural flaws.
- We have a fleet that has lost any semblance of tactical training.
And so on …
Is this really what we want to keep going? It’s not even debatable that the fleet is becoming smaller and less capable relative to the current and future threats. Alright, so the current system isn’t perfect but what are the benefits to stopping new construction and what about the problems associated with stopping?
Let’s look at the benefits, first.
The most obvious benefit is that stopping new construction would free up enormous sums of money, $15B per year from the shipbuilding budget alone. This money then becomes available for the deferred maintenance that is crippling and hollowing the fleet. We simply can’t build new ships as fast as the existing ones are being allowed to fall into disrepair and subsequent early retirement. We absolutely must reverse this decline in the physical state of our ships and aircraft.
Existing ships can be upgraded. While upgrades are not cheap they are still far cheaper than new construction. A good example is the Australian’s upgrade of the Perrys. If you think the
is poor at program management, we look positively efficient next to the Australians – no offense, down there. Even so, the upgrade cost $100M or so and they obtained a modernized, capable frigate. Compare that to the $1B or so cost for a new frigate. We could upgrade ten frigates for the cost of a single new one. US
Existing aircraft can also be upgraded, rewinged, refuselaged, or whatever is necessary to maintain a competent aviation component during the moratorium. Even without new construction aircraft, we can apply many of the Advanced Super Hornet features (conformal fuel tanks, stealth weapon pods, advanced avionics, etc.) to existing Hornets via upgrades.
A break in new construction would allow us to go back to the drawing board and work on carefully thought out designs for our next ships and aircraft. We wouldn’t be under the gun to rush something out. Does anyone think the Navy is carefully evaluating LCS alternatives right now? Of course not. They’re going to recommend the quickest option that can make it into production regardless of whether it’s a useful design or not. That’s why it’s a near certainty that the LCS replacement will be an LCS!
We’re talking about a Pacific Pivot to deal with the coming Chinese threat although the Navy won’t speak the name out loud. A break would allow us to pivot on paper first. Let’s take the time to game out what strategies we would use and what capabilities we would need to implement those strategies. Then, and only then, should we proceed to the design and procurement phases. A moratorium would give us the unpressured time to do our homework and lay the proper foundation for the next ship and aircraft designs.
A moratorium would allow us to focus on training so that we can maximize the potential of the weapons and systems we have instead of constantly moving on to the next system coming down the line before we’ve mastered the current one. We have Burkes that rarely practice ASW, a Marine Corps that’s re-inventing the amphibious assault wheel, an Aegis system that is seriously degraded fleetwide due to the lack of highly trained technicians (and parts!), and so on. Our command element is woefully untrained in battle tactics – that’s the Navy’s opinion, not mine, though I agree fully. We could come out of the moratorium fully trained up and battle ready, unlike our current state.
A moratorium would allow us to complete some of the advanced technologies that we’re currently attempting to include in new construction despite the fact that they don’t exist in a functional form. We can develop unmanned vehicles of all types to a more mature level, complete a Harpoon replacement, develop a Tomahawk replacement, and dozens of other programs that desperately need to mature before being rushed into the fleet in an incomplete and only marginally functional state.
We see, then, that the benefits of a moratorium are many and profound. What about the potential drawbacks, though?
The most commonly cited argument against a reduced construction pace (or moratorium, in this case) is the impact on the industrial base. The logic of this argument insists that the need to maintain the base outweighs any other concern. It’s why proponents say we must accept sub-standard products like the JSF, LCS, and LPD. Well, you just read the proposed benefits. They would include massive upgrades and maintenance of all ships and aircraft. The industrial base would be kept fully occupied, fully funded, and fully employed filling this need. Aircraft carriers would still need nuclear refueling and overhauls. Designers would be fully occupied developing the next round of new designs but at a pace that would allow them to actually do it right. Thus, industry would not lose any funding, capacity, or expertise. In fact, they might well have to expand to meet the demand!
Naysayers would argue that we would fall behind our enemies. The reality is that that’s happening now. Our enemies have intermediate range ballistic missiles, highly advanced supersonic anti-ship cruise and ballistic missiles, fleets of brand new ships packed with modern missiles, huge inventories of mines, etc. while we’re building ships and aircraft that are being outpaced even before they’re completed. The fact is that a moratorium would not cause us to drop any further behind than we are and it would allow us to come out of it with brand new, well thought out designs based on actual proven technology.
By the way, this moratorium would include a moratorium on new Admirals until such time as we reduce the number from the current 350 or so to around 50.
Of course, the entire premise of a moratorium depends on doing the things I’ve outlined and doing them correctly. Could the Navy institute a moratorium and totally bungle the execution? Of course, they could. They’re the same Navy and same leadership we have now. However, one of the major aspects of a moratorium is that it would relieve current leadership from the pressure of having to produce new ships and planes no matter how badly flawed and no matter what the negative impact on other programs. It would be a chance for naval leadership to catch their breath, relax, and start over, so to speak, without that pressure to provide instant short term results to the detriment of long term gains. Hey, what we’re doing now isn’t working. Isn’t it worth trying something else?