In August, U.S. Secretary of Defense Robert Gates vowed to trim at least $100 billion over five years from the U.S. military’s overhead costs. The goal, Gates proclaimed, was to devote a greater proportion of the Pentagon’s steadily flattening budget to fighting forces and new weapons.
Gates’ move came at a time of ongoing economic crisis and increasing taxpayer wariness of government spending. “The culture of endless money that has taken hold must be replaced by a culture of savings and restraint,” Gates said.
But some observers characterized the efficiency effort as budget cut, and accused Gates of undermining U.S. defenses. When Gates said he would shut down the Joint Forces Command headquarters in Virginia and distribute its training functions to other organizations – thereby saving at least $200 million a year — Virginia governor Bob McDonnell called it “a very bad decision.”
On Jan. 6, Gates announced his list of cash-saving moves. True to his word — and contrary to the warnings last year – the secretary’s plan indeed cut a large number of redundant headquarters and command staffs and directed the savings into weapons procurement. The Navy arguably stands to gain the most new hardware from Gates’ changes. As a result of this and other recent developments, the world’s biggest and most powerful navy finally stands a chance at realizing long-standing plans to expand the fleet to an eventual total of 313 major warships.
For the Navy, the overhead cuts made official in January amount to $35 billion in savings over five years. Efficiency measures include: dis-establishing ashore staffs for submarine, maritime patrol aircraft, and destroyer squadrons plus one carrier strike group staff and the staff of the 2nd Fleet, a training command. These reductions will not result in the early retirements of any ships or aircraft, nor manpower reductions. Some 6,000 sailors freed up by the shore-based staff eliminations will be re-assigned to warships, effectively reversing a decade-long “lean-manning” trend within the fleet.
With its $35-billion windfall, the Navy will: accelerate by several years the development of a new radar-jamming pod for the EA-18G Growler Electronic-Warfare plane; buy scores of additional F/A-18E/F fighters; add funds to the development of the X-47 carrier-capable Unmanned Aerial Vehicle; and, perhaps most importantly, purchase one Arleigh Burke-class destroyer, one Littoral Combat Ship and one ocean surveillance vessel over previous plans, plus accelerate from 2017 to 2014 initial construction of up to 19 new, double-hulled fleet oilers.
With three new ships and the accelerated tankers, the Navy now stands to purchase as many as 56 ships over the next five years, compared to the previous plan for just 50 – and the elevated shipbuilding rates will continue beyond the current five-year plan. Assuming current and future warships last 35 years, on average, a sustained build-rate of 10 ships per year should begin to grow the fleet from its current size of just 280 hulls. For the first time in memory, the Navy’s ambitions for a 313-strong battle fleet seem feasible.
Two important developments underpin the increase. First, the Navy’s sole existing shipyard for large support vessels, National Steel and Shipbuilding Company in San Diego, has proved capable of delivering ships on-budget and on-schedule, a rarity in the U.S. industry. NASSCO’s work on the Navy’s 14 T-AKE dry-stores ships for years has been a bright spot in American shipbuilding.
Realistically, only NASSCO can build the new T-AO(X) oilers. A last-minute campaign by Louisiana state officials to steer the T-AO(X) toward the inefficient, soon-to-close Avondale shipyard, “isn’t realistic,” according to independent naval analyst Craig Hooper. With NASSCO building the new tankers, the Navy can assume it well get them on time and on budget, if not faster and cheaper than planned.
Secondly, the Navy in November surprised observers by splitting construction of its Littoral Combat Ship corvettes between the two competing shipbuilders, Austal and Lockheed Martin. Between 2009 and late 2010, the plan had been to award construction of at least the next 19 LCS – hull numbers five through 23 — to a single yard. But upon receiving attractive bids from both companies, the sea service decided to lock in the lower-than-expected prices and put the savings toward an extra vessel. It’s that “bonus” vessel that appeared in Gates’ January announcement.
“The turnaround on the LCS may be a sign that the defense industry has gotten the message and is finding ways of developing platforms that meet essential operational requirements while not breaking the bank,” observed Daniel Goure, an analyst with the Washington, D.C.-based Lexington Institute.
What’s more, the Navy has finally identified a weapons system to boost the LCS combat capability, arguably transforming it from a lightly-armed patrol vessel to a genuine warship. The LCS design originally boasted the Lockheed- and Raytheon-built Non-Line-of-Sight Launch System missile, optimized for destroying surface targets at a distance of up to 50 miles. In early 2010, the Pentagon cancelled NLOS-LS on cost and technical grounds, and for months the LCS was without missile armament. In January, Rear Adm. Frank Pandolfe indicated the Navy would pick Raytheon’s similar, but cheaper, Griffin missile as a replacement.
With redundant commands shutting down, more sailors headed to sea, more ships being ordered along with better weapons, and more shipyards getting steady work, it’s been a good couple months for the U.S. Navy – this despite a flattening budget. It remains to be seen whether the Navy can maintain this forward momentum, and ultimately build the bigger, more powerful fleet it has long envisioned. But at least now the 313-strong fleet stands a chance.