Streetwise Professor

July 31, 2021

Navy Blues

Filed under: Military,Politics — cpirrong @ 4:26 pm

Over Labor Day weekend I will be attending my Naval Academy class reunion (which one?–classified!). Although I punched out after my Youngster Year, having determined that I was better cut out to be a scholar than a boat driver/order giver/order taker (a wise judgment, in retrospect, especially for a 19 year old in the face of family pressure), I have kept an eye on the Navy. And its current situation brings a tear to that eye.

The Navy faces serious hardware and meatware issues.

The surface fleet is dwindling. The Ticonderoga class cruisers are reaching the end of their useful lives. The Arleigh Burkes have proved to be an excellent platform whose capabilities have been increased steadily, but they are being stretched to their limits, both operationally and in terms of the ability to expand their capabilities.

Two of the Navy’s recent surface ship programs–the Littoral Combat Ship and the Zumwalt class–have proven to be total disasters. With regards to LCS, Strategy Page tells the dismal tale. A snippet (and alas there’s much more):

The ensuing endless equipment and operational problems led the navy to cut LCS production from the 52 originally planned to no more than 35 ships. As of May 2021 only 23 LCS are in service and four are to be retired by late 2021, one of them after only seven years of service.

The LCS was intended to replace 30 larger Perry class frigates and 26 smaller mine warfare ships. That did not work out as planned because of delays in completing the task-specific mission modules that enabled an LCS to quickly install specialized equipment, which was accompanied by a team of specialists to operate it. This enabled an LCS to handle mine warfare, surface combat, air defense and so on. While the first LCS entered service in 2008, the first Mission Modules didn’t arrive until 2018 and none of these modules worked as originally planned. Not only were the modules all late, some were cancelled and all were way over budget because of a variety of problems navy planners did not anticipate, but could have if they had paid more attention to all the potential problems with developing these modules.

The Zumwalts (of which 32 were originally planned, but only 3 will see the sea) were designed to be stealthy ships specialized for shore bombardment. The shells designed for the 155mm (6″) guns turned out to be unreliable and expensive, so were scrapped. So much for shore bombardment. Further, the reemergence of peer competition (notably from China, and to a lesser degree Russia) reduces the priority of the shore bombardment mission and increases the priority of anti-ship, anti-aircraft, and anti-missile capability which Zumwalts are relatively unsuited for (unable to carry Aegis radar, for example). The Zumwalts are thus an orphan class, and a dead end.

So billions of dollars and more than a decade have basically been wasted on two classes of ships that are not fit for purpose, especially in confrontation against a peer competitor.

New carriers of the Ford class are coming online. Over budget, of course, and with some teething problems (especially related to elevators and the electric catapults), but at least those ships appear to offer considerable improvements over the stalwart Nimitz class.

New ships for the Gator Navy (amphibious ships) are superior to their predecessors, but numbers and cost are major issues.

Submarines are a relative bright spot. The Virginia class boats are highly capable, and are improving substantially with every new Block (Block V currently). But numbers are a serious concern, and as Stalin said, quantity has a quality all its own. The Navy talks big about the new Columbia class boomers (ballistic missile subs) but it remains to be seen whether the big talk about cost and deadlines will be realized in fact. History suggests otherwise. There is also the issue of whether the US has the capability to build enough Virginias and Columbias simultaneously, not even considering cost.

The Navy also faces serious constraints in shipyards. Ships need to be repaired, and such constraints are causing delays in repairs and increases in their costs.

With respect to aircraft, it all depends on the much maligned and much touted (depending on who you listen to) F-35. The program seems to have turned a corner but it remains to be seen whether the theory of stealth fighters winning battles from a distance will turn out this time–as it didn’t with the F-4 in Vietnam. Moreover, relatively short range makes aerial refueling imperative, which will be difficult in a contested environment until stealth drone refueling aircraft become a reality.

Meatware is also a serious concern. The Navy suffered several serious accidents attributable to poor training, poor leadership, and excessive demands on ships and crews necessitated by hull numbers not keeping pace with operational commitments. Knock-on-wood there haven’t been any major incidents lately, presumably because lessons have been learned and corrective measures taken, but some of the underlying issues remain.

Moreover, morale is low. In part this is due to the operational demands. But it runs deeper than that, and the problem starts at the top. The Navy is in woke step with the rest of the US military. This is demoralizing, and time and effort spent on woke activities is time and effort that can’t be devoted to mission critical activities:

“I guarantee you every unit in the Navy is up to speed on their diversity training,” said one recently retired senior enlisted leader. “I’m sorry that I can’t say the same of their ship-handling training.”

The zero fault tolerance mindset that prevails today also saps initiative, induces extreme risk aversion, and is conducive to Bligh-like vertical chop discipline all down the line, which creates a “the lashings will continue until morale improves” mindset. Many years back I wrote about how US Navy icons such as Nimitz and Halsey experienced serious mishaps as junior officers, with Nimitz’s career surviving a ship grounding for example. That would never happen today.

These are all extremely deep problems with no easy fixes. In theory, the ship numbers can be fixed with money. But this administration is loath to spend that money. Moreover, the Navy’s wretched procurement record means that even though money is necessary to fix the problem, it may not be sufficient: as the LCS and Zumwalt experiences prove, the Navy can blow a lot of money–a lot of money–and get very little operational capability in return.

The institutional and cultural issues will be much harder to fix. Institutional cultures take longer to turn around than an aircraft carrier with disabled steering gear. Senior officers who rise in a particular culture are the ones who have to change it, but the very fact that they were selected in that culture means that they are often the least capable of doing so. They are the problem, or products of the problem, and are hence ill-disposed or ill-equipped to fix the problem. Political pressures to focus on mission-irrelevant or mission-inimical issues, such as diversity and phantom extremism, are potentially insuperable barriers to necessary change.

The Navy has faced budgetary, cultural, political, doctrinal, and institutional tempests before. If you read about the Navy’s performance early in WWII, especially in the Guadalcanal Campaign, and you’ll learn that arguably the only reasons it overcame, or even survived, its leadership, cultural, and doctrinal challenges in 1941-1942 were the presence of a couple of exceptional admirals (King and Nimitz), and the fact that the Japanese had even more crippling leadership, doctrinal, and cultural handicaps. That, and the fact that American industrial capacity to rebuild its fleet and expand it far outstripped that of its foe–something that is almost certainly not the case today.

We can’t count on being so lucky again.

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  1. “Submarines are a relative bright spot.” Just as well: surface ships are mostly obsolete – mere targets for land-launched missiles if they go anywhere near a shore. Building a fleet of surface ships is equipping a navy for a rerun of WWII, a fruitless activity.

    If I were the Chinese Emperor I’d be calculating how many submarine minelayers I needed to shut almost all of the USN in port while stopping essentially all American maritime trade. Then I’d ask myself whether or when I’d dare deploy them.

    It may be that the USN could defeat any opponent that chose to fight conventional blue-water battles. But therefore none would.

    Comment by dearieme — July 31, 2021 @ 5:16 pm

  2. It’s not just the USN (though that is the only one that matters). The Royal Navy has dispatched a couple of targets – Brown’s follies – to the Far East. At leat they are not called Repulse and the Prince of Wales this time.

    Comment by dearieme — July 31, 2021 @ 5:19 pm

  3. “Senior officers who rise in a particular culture are the ones who have to change it, but the very fact that they were selected in that culture means that they are often the least capable of doing so. They are the problem, or products of the problem, and are hence ill-disposed or ill-equipped to fix the problem.”

    It’s a somewhere between sad and terrifying truth that militaries need a proper shooting war every now and then. To put it politely, to remind everyone what they’re actually for, what is the measure by which success is to be judged? To put it less politely, in order to be able to fire everyone who succeeds in reaching senior rank in a peacetime military.

    Comment by Tim Worstall — August 1, 2021 @ 1:39 am

  4. When was the last time the RN was given a good overhaul, Tim? Jackie Fisher?

    Comment by dearieme — August 1, 2021 @ 6:20 am

  5. The thing that gets my goat is the Chicoms spending 150 Billion on their military annualy while the American military spends 600 Billions for essentially the same payback.

    That’s alot of extras…..

    Comment by Chris Phillips — August 1, 2021 @ 10:14 am

  6. @Tim. You are exactly right. Those in charge at the beginning of wars, selected for their ability to navigate the peacetime maze, almost always fail disastrously when the shooting starts because the skills required to navigate that maze are not the ones that are needed to win wars. Indeed, they are “skills” that are least suited to the strain of battle. Bureaucratic survivors are not warriors. Warriors are not bureaucratic survivors.

    I am most familiar with US experience in the Civil War, WWII, and Korea. In WWII, for example, George Marshall ruthlessly culled the senior ranks because he realized that they were not up to the test of battle. For example, Eisenhower was a LTC whom Marshall jumped over many whom he realized were not up to the task. In my opinion, Marshall’s greatest contribution to the US war effort was to recognize exactly what you say–when the shooting starts you need to fire those who have reached the top before it did. (Marshall didn’t always get it right. Lloyd Fredendall being the most painful example.) Admiral King–an SOB par excellence–acted similarly in the Navy. (Though again he didn’t always get it right–Ghormley was a disaster in the SW Pacific.)

    It is a tragic fact that the traits that have survival value in bureaucratic Darwinian struggles have negative value in the Darwinian struggle of war. One can only hope that (apropos the US. v. Japan example in the post) that (a) your adversary’s bureaucratic selection criteria are more perverse than yours, and (b) you jettison your peacetime culture more rapidly than your foe.

    Comment by cpirrong — August 1, 2021 @ 4:14 pm

  7. Everyone is thinking the Chinese military is “ten feet tall”; well, except for terrorizing and killing their own the PLA hasn’t ever had a peer-to-peer war. That doesn’t bode well for them. We have our problems especially with political influences, but I’ll take our problems to theirs. The field levels our forces have been at war for 30 years, in one form or another.

    Comment by The Pilot — August 1, 2021 @ 5:05 pm

  8. “the last time the RN was given a good overhaul, Tim? Jackie Fisher?”

    A substantial clear out in 1939-ish too. Actually, in the months leading up to the war itself:

    Comment by Tim Worstall — August 2, 2021 @ 3:10 am

  9. Two points—->Marshall came from outside the Academy system (VMI). Who is that person for any branch of service today? Milley is a Princeton grad and you won’t find that person coming out of the Ivies.

    —->if you aren’t familiar with the US Navy in WW2, James Hornfischer’s two books (Neptune’s Inferno and The Last Stand of the Tin Can Sailors) will give you insight into how leadership thought, and how troops fought. For example, at Guadalcanal, around 7000 US Navy personnel died in the sea. 1200 Marines died on land fighting. When they named Iron Bottom Sound, they weren’t kidding.

    Comment by Jeffrey Carter — August 2, 2021 @ 6:31 am

  10. “The shells designed for the 155mm (6″) guns turned out to be unreliable and expensive, so were scrapped.”

    Actually, the Zumwalt class size was reduced to three ships so it was no longer economical to build a manufacturing line for the AGS 155mm shell. The rounds did indeed cost $800,000 each, but that was because the specialized AGS rounds were still made by hand.

    Comment by stablesort — August 3, 2021 @ 6:18 pm

  11. “the specialized AGS rounds were still made by hand”: aye, and in Nelson’s day the hands would chip imperfections off the cannon balls before action.

    Maybe I should read more of the Master and Commander books if I want more insight into the modern navy.

    Comment by dearieme — August 5, 2021 @ 5:02 am

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