Streetwise Professor

April 8, 2024

The U.S. Navy In Existential Crisis

Filed under: China,Military,Politics — cpirrong @ 11:50 am

The United States Navy is broken. The 2010s saw numerous operational SNAFUs, ship collisions and the like. Those have abated somewhat, the most recent being the collision of the Seawolf Class submarine USS Connecticut with an undersea mountain about 2.5 years ago. But serious long term structural problems are metastasizing. And these are much more difficult to address than reprioritizing seamanship.

The Navy desperately needs to be recapitalized. Major ship classes are reaching retirement. These include Ticonderga Class cruisers, and Ohio Class SSBNs (nuclear missile submarines) and SSGNs (guided missile submarines). Ship numbers have plummeted, and most troubling, replacement ships have either proven to be failures (LCS), wildly expensive without a coherent mission (Zumwalt), or pathetically behind schedule.

The Ohio replacements–Columbia Class SSBNs–are the least pathetic, being only a year behind. (Allegedly. I predict that number will slip.) Ford Class carriers (CVN) are 2-3 years behind. Virginia Class SSNs (arguably the single-most important ship type) are 3 years behind. The reasonable replacement for the hapless LCS–Constellation Class frigates–is 3 years behind.

When I was at the Naval Academy, the only acceptable answer to the question “Why did you f-up?” was “no excuse, sir!” Now, the Navy is nothing but excuses. Covid (natch), “supply chain woes” (natch), retirement of experienced labor at shipyards (euphemistically called “greening of the labor force”). (Though now the Navy has apparently stopped making excuses. It’s decided to take the 5th instead–which is denying a problem rather than admitting it.)

Which all brings to mind another old Naval adage: PPPPPP, i.e., “Prior planning prevents piss-poor performance.” Covid excepted, the other supposed problems were predictable and observable, and should have been anticipated, recognized, and addressed before they mushroomed into full-blown disasters.

And it is essential to emphasize that “Covid” was not the problem: the problem was catastrophic government policies justified by Covid. And in these, the Navy–and the military generally–was an eager participant. It exacerbated the military’s other ongoing crisis (in recruiting and force retention) through its draconian vaccine policies. Moreover, it is clear that significant resources were diverted from doing with the Navy should do to managing idiotic Covid policies.

Case in point. When I went to my USNA class reunion in 2021, at the Superintendent’s Call the Supe spent a good portion of the time bragging about all the efforts necessary to keep the academy running during Covid (e.g., arranging for the handling of the massive increase in trash caused by having meals served in Mids’ rooms–truly a national defense priority!). That type of diversion of leadership time was no doubt the rule, rather than the exception.

(The other biggest subject of the Supe’s talk was related to DEI efforts–another subject, but also symptomatic of the diversion of the Navy/military resources and leadership time into non-mission-critical matters.)

Pace JFK, failure is not an orphan. The Navy’s failure has many fathers (and mothers, nowadays). Service leadership is at the head, of course. Civilian “leadership” at the Pentagon is also greatly culpable. The procurement process is utterly broken. Resources are diverted to chasing chimeras, the aforementioned DEI being one, but climate change being another. And Congress bears considerable blame, most notably for the non-budgeting process which has resulted in year after year of continuing resolutions that (rather than budgets) that make long-term planning and management and procurement extremely difficult. Congress is also largely responsible for prioritizing the chimeras.

The Navy and the Air Force are the most vital branches in any prospective conflict with China in the Pacific. The Navy’s complete dysfunction is therefore a grave national security issue. The most grave of all, in fact.

So what is to be done? The problems are so deep and so structurally embedded that easy fixes are off the table. Congress’ dysfunction is unlikely to change, absent some sort of miracle in November (but even there truth be told the Republicans bear considerable culpability for the existing problems). Similarly, a change of administration is a necessary but not sufficient condition: Trump’s record at appointing civilian Pentagon leadership was appalling, and the dysfunction continued and arguably accelerated on his watch. Given the inertia of the massive Pentagon bureaucracy and its hostility to Trump, moreover, it is doubtful whether he can clean the Augean Stables on the Potomac, even if he has the urge to try (also doubtful). The current flag ranks and those in line to succeed them are the products of a politicized military produced primarily by 8 years under Obama.

An Admiral Byng approach is tempting, but it will take more than one firing squad “pour encourager les autres.” Many more.

I wish I could offer solutions, or even suggestions. But in order to get those responsible (but apparently unaccountable, alas) focused on getting the ship back on course it is necessary to alert them to the looming iceberg ahead. So the best I can do is sound the crash alarm and hope that it is heeded before it is too late.

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8 Comments »

  1. There were two major outbreaks of covid in US ships. Ford and Roosevelt? Each with over a thousand crew. No one died, and the sans were never overcrowded.
    So the obvious conclusion – given that the AC would distribute the virus everywhere – that covid was a trivial flu type disease – why was this information not passed up the chain of command?

    Comment by philip — April 8, 2024 @ 3:54 pm

  2. In my years in and around the USAF and government in general, until the civilian leadership is entirely changed and reformed (no more Deputy Assistant Undersecretarys) AND the President can influence the officer corps down to the 0-6 commander level, it’s hopeless.

    Comment by The Pilot — April 8, 2024 @ 9:33 pm

  3. For anybody interested in how the LCS came to be what it was, and how it went so wrong, without bias or hyperbola, and with all speculation clearly flagged as such (and if you have a long journey coming up and want something interesting to put on the radio), check out the Youtube Channel “Perun” and his video “US Navy Procurement Disasters – The Littoral Combat Ship and Zumwalt Class Destroyer”. He’s an Australian defence procurement expert, but is somebody who actually works in that field, not just the usual lobby-group/consultant “expert”. A good presenter, to boot (if every military powerpoint warrior was this good, powerpoint warriors would be much more useful and highly regarded).

    It’s very understandable how this situation got setup… less understandable how it was allowed to get so bad…

    Comment by HibernoFrog — April 9, 2024 @ 1:47 am

  4. What is the purpose of the deep sea fleet that the US owns? If it were competent it might be useful in a re-fight of the Battle of Midway but no opponent would be so stupid as to offer such a battle.

    Warships, apart from submarines, will just be targets in the next serious war. If a fleet sails near a continental shore it is probably doomed – mines, drones, missiles, … Heavens, at the moment the USN even seems too scared of Yemenis to fight them.

    Does the distinction matter between ships that are essentially junk – Zumwalts, LCSs – and well made ships that will anyway be sunk PDQ?

    Comment by dearieme — April 9, 2024 @ 2:14 am

  5. Correct me if I’m wrong, but I believe the official policy of the current administration is that “the US does not support or facilitate US strikes outside the US territory”, which would make a navy somewhat pointless.

    Comment by Ivan — April 9, 2024 @ 3:54 am

  6. …the official policy of the current administration is that “the US does not support or facilitate US strikes outside the US territory”

    I’m reassured to know that Joe is going to bomb Nebraska before he bombs me. But has he a plan for issuing passports to residents of Syria, Afghanistan, Yemen and all those other places the US has bombed in the past or might in the future?

    Comment by philip — April 9, 2024 @ 2:43 pm

  7. It’s not just the USN. The RN has announced that recruits will no longer be required to be swimmers.

    I’m sure that a rational case can be made for the decision – my first youthful trip to sea on a trawler taught me that I was the only one aboard who could swim.

    But the fact that it’s been introduced now carries a reek of rotting fish about it.

    Comment by dearieme — April 12, 2024 @ 6:01 am

  8. I think the real problem is the rot at the American core. Skilled blue collar jobs in the shipyards used to be desirable jobs. But can you find welders and other skilled workers to man the ship yards.

    If you could, the problem would be at least partially solved. We could extend the lives of some existing platforms and build more of the latest blocks of already established ships like the Ticonderoga which I still assume has cutting edge technology. Newer platforms can be built using more established technologies, not pushing “rail guns” and always pushing the envelope on every aspect of ship design.

    But without the trained work force, this isn’t a possibility.

    Comment by MARK — April 14, 2024 @ 9:43 pm

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