A new class of unmanned ships proposed by the Navy as a bulwark against growing Chinese and Russian naval might is running into deep skepticism on Capitol Hill, reflecting larger and broad frustration in Congress over the Navy’s stalled modernization push. (1)
Congress is finally exerting its oversight responsibility, much to the dismay of the Navy.
The House Armed Services Committee voted 56-0 Wednesday night to send its version of the 2021 Pentagon policy bill to the entire House, a document which slaps restrictions on the Navy and withholds money from the Pentagon until it delivers a long-delayed Navy force structure plan.
The document also boosts Congressional oversight over the Large Unmanned Surface Vessel, an ambitious new ship the Navy hoped to begin building in 2023. The House’s skepticism over the program is shared by the Senate, which is looking to fence off money for the effort until the Navy demonstrates it understands the technologies involved. (1)
However, this is symptomatic of a larger issue between Congress and the Navy: neither trusts the other. The lack of trust has arisen over the years and is due to a multitude of broken promises by the Navy and just plain lies in addition to monumental failures to perform. For their part, Congress has failed to exercise oversight authority and has allowed the Navy to run amok until recently.
The bipartisan consensus to force the Navy to pump the brakes on the LUSV and put pressure on the Pentagon to deliver the shipbuilding and modernization plans reflect a larger uneasiness on Capitol Hill over the Navy’s strategy and its ability to build first-in-class ships on time and on budget.
Lawmakers clearly “are frustrated by the Navy’s last decade of cost overruns on new programs, programs being late, and technology being the thing that holds them up,” Bryan Clark of the Hudson Institute says.
The HASC version of the bill takes a bold stance in defense of its own oversight, withholding billions from the Pentagon’s operations and maintenance account and prohibiting the Navy from retiring any ships until Defense Secretary Mark Esper delivers to Congress the Navy’s long-awaited force structure assessment and the 30-year shipbuilding plan, both of which he took control over in February. (1)
At long last, Congress is pumping the brakes on the Navy until they can produce a force structure plan. Without a coherent plan, hopefully tied to a geopolitical and military strategy, Navy acquisition is just haphazard – hoping that whatever they can obtain will someday, somehow, prove useful. The Navy hoped the LCS would prove useful and it didn’t. The Navy hoped the Zumwalt would prove useful and it didn’t. The Navy hoped the Afloat Forward Staging Base would prove useful and it didn’t. And so on. Hope is a poor acquisition strategy.
Congress has begun to see the decades-long pattern of acquisition malpractice from the Navy.
The LUSV has been singled out by lawmakers because the Navy has looked to charge ahead with plans to incorporate new and untested technologies on the ship without fully vetting and testing them before the program kicks off. It’s a repeat of the same approach the service took with new classes of ships like the Littoral Combat Ship, Zumwalt destroyer, and Ford aircraft carrier, only to rack up budget overruns and endure schedules slippages caused by time-consuming fixes and about-faces.
What has lawmakers concerned is the speed with which the Navy wants to move on these big unmanned ships, and the fact that the service wants to start building while they’re still developing the unique technologies like propulsion systems that will power the ships on long transits with no sailors aboard to troubleshoot or fix problems that might arise.
“Congress doesn’t have much confidence in the Navy’s approach,” on new programs including the LUSV, a former senior defense official told me. (1)
Here’s an interesting example of laudable Congressional oversight that has come far too late.
On the Senate side, an article in Proceedings — the US Naval Institute’s prestigious magazine — this week by chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, Sen. Jim Inhofe, and the committee’s ranking Democrat, Sen. Jack Reed, lambasted the Pentagon for years of “absurd acquisition debacles that have set back the country tens of billions of dollars and delayed necessary weapon systems.” The senators point out the Navy has struggled to build the first ships of successive classes. (1)
It’s great that Congress is stepping up and exercising its oversight, now, but where were they during the years of “absurd acquisition debacles”? To step forward now and criticize the Navy without also accepting at least half the blame is hypocritical, at best.
The Navy’s lack of a long term plan is hurting them in Congress.
The absence of the 30-year shipbuilding plan and the Future Navy Force Study which will lay out a modernization strategy is weighing heavily on the Navy, especially now that planning is beginning for the 2022 budget. “The Navy needs to lay out a path for the purpose of the experimentation on the hardware side, and what is the experimentation on the doctrinal side, what are the milestones, and how are we going to move forward,” the former defense official said.
“I think that would go a long way to providing a compelling vision, and then linking that vision to a strategy. Show me how all these bits and pieces fit in within new operational concepts — this is something that the Navy hasn’t done a great job of doing in recent years.” What has lawmakers concerned is the speed with which the Navy wants to move on these big unmanned ships, and the fact that the service wants to start building while they’re still developing the unique technologies like propulsion systems that will power the ships on long transits with no sailors aboard to troubleshoot or fix problems that might arise.
It appears that the Navy has worn out its welcome in Congress and used up any reservoir of trust it had. Now, Congress is reining in the Navy and the Navy has left itself in the position of being unable to justify any of its future acquisitions. Congress is finally doing its job and exercising oversight. Now, the Navy needs to begin doing its job and start presenting coherent acquisition plans that are tied to strategy.
(1)Breaking Defense, “Congress Pumps The Brakes On Navy, Demands Answers From OSD ”, Paul McLeary, 2-Jul-2020,https://breakingdefense.com/2020/07/congress-pumps-the-brakes-on-navy-demands-answers-from-osd/