The Pacific Pivot as An Old LCU

by Craig Hooper on November 18, 2018

To me, the picture accompanying this post speaks volumes about the “Pacific Pivot”. The photo shows LCU 1634 helping the Commonwealth of Northern Mariana Islands (CNMI) recover after being leveled by Super Typhoon Yutu.

Looks great, right?

Well, it looks great until the observer realizes that LCU 1634 is ancient. That venerable LCU in the picture just celebrated it’s 50th year of service on September 6th. Now, don’t get me wrong…that hunk of rust has strong support. LCU 1634 is attached to a great U.S. Amphibious Warfare asset, the USS Ashland (LSD 48). The whole enterprise is being run by some fabulous folks; Rear Admiral Cooper has done a great job of positioning his assets to provide the most aid they can and Col. Robert Brodie is doing great work.

But….those pricy amphibious platforms and strong leaders are limited to doing what they can with the tools they have. And some green eyeshade accountant, backed by a disinterested Navy, an unengaged Congress and a uninformed public decided a fifty-year old landing craft was OK.

It’s not.

For the want of a nail:

A landing craft is a critical functional requirement for any amphibious vessel. If the landing craft is down, the amphibious vessel is largely useless.  But America didn’t want to bother investing in a simple replacement (yes, yes, replacements are on the way, but a 50+ year recapitalization cycle is far too long) because landing craft aren’t, oh, sufficiently lethal or something. So if the Marines actually needed to employ the USS Ashland in a military contingency, they’d be relying on a 50 year-old piece of landing tech that is, essentially, held together by welded-on patches of steel and duct tape.

And then there is the state of CNMI itself. CNMI is a strategically vital set of islands, and anybody with a passing knowledge of “Pacific Strategy” (such as it is) has known these islands have been under-resourced for years. I won’t bore you with the litany of unfunded resiliency measures America has, in recent years, decided NOT to fund, but…there’s a whole lot of stuff that could have been put into place that would have made CNMI a far tougher nut for a cyclone–even a super cyclone–to crack.

One particular piece that hasn’t been funded is inter-island transport; CNMI should have had their own dedicated logistical support fleet by now. I am shocked America still lacks rapid inter-island mobility options out there to move military folks about the islands yet. Wasn’t CNMI once in line to receive a Expeditionary Fast Transport….by 2018?

If so, where is it?

The horse was lost:

With no island-group/in-CNMI mobility, America has no other option but to raid some poor Pacific Expeditionary Strike Group for a much-needed ship. Today, that is the apparent “Pacific Theatre cyclone-recovery specialist vessel,” the USS Ashland.

Frankly, USS Ashland–with her complement of about 400 sailors and more than 400 embarked Marines shouldn’t be at CNMI at all. But, due to a lack of assets and an quintessential American failure to invest in the critical CNMI region, the Ashland has been forced to spend months off CNMI to support hurricane recovery this year.

But USS Ashland is needed right now to support a busy 7th Fleet.

So what does that mean? Well, for Cyclone Yutu, it means America diverted a front-line asset–again, about 400 sailors and more than 400 Marines–so, as of November 13, her two LCUs from Navy Beach Unit 7 could deliver about, oh, 100 vehicles to the islands? And then serve as a floating FARP for intra-island helicopter traffic? I’m not impressed; an EPF could have done all this far faster with about fifty folks.

But America has yet to make the modest up-front investment needed to keep its pricey front-line assets forward and “Ready to Fight Tonight!”

It’s how you lose a war:

This all feeds into a bigger story. In the Pacific, America has a distressing habit of dismissing strategic territorial holdings. Few are out there in DC or anywhere else making the Pacific a “real” thing for the “average” American.

CNMI , for example, is a vital American outpost in the Pacific, but the United States doesn’t seem to want to do much with the islands beyond depositing some folks at some nice bases and…that’s it. Rather than get in there and draw islanders close, we have left the islanders largely on their own, and allowed a corrosive brew of ethnic nationalism to evolve, ready to help tug the islands away from a U.S. orbit.

I’d have thought we would have learned the lessons from Vieques, but…nope.

We need to do something.  When the stodgy old Atlantic Magazine is writing stuff like, oh, “people in CNMI are predominantly Chamorro, Filipino, Chinese, Korean, Carolinian, Bangladeshi, and members of other ethnic groups that are often marginalized in the U.S.“, it shouldn’t take a genius to guess the levers our rivals will, in a few years, employ to pry CNMI from the American orbit.

Conclusion:

In short, the Pacific Pivot is putting some great people and platforms forward without sufficient regard for aged, feeble or fragile back-end that supports ’em.

Put simply, basic pedestrian resources go a long way in facilitating wider strategic goals. So, if the Pacific Pivot is a reality, let’s get about the business of investing in stuff like some simple, old-fashioned organic logistical support at critical places like CNMI. Lethality is great, but we need to make those modest and, yes, boring foundation-level investments. It’s the only way to free up front-line assets to the point where they can focus on their warfighting “job”. Get the new LCUs into production and grow the program of record. Order more EPFs, charter laid-up oilfield support vessels and get about funding the bewildering array of odd-lot basic support craft needed to prosecute a long maritime standoff.

And, above all else, let’s stop treating American territories like they are expendable, unwanted bits of populated coral. They are not. We need our island outposts. There’s not a lot of land in the Deep Pacific, and we should make an effort to get along and get ’em into the 21st Century….these little isolated islands pay enormous dividends in enabling America’s small set of pricy and somewhat overtasked “lethality” focused assets.

If the Pacific is to become a front line in a modern Cold War-style competition, America will need to make those investments anyway. Why not make ’em now?

Before we really need them.

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Inside the CBO’s Attack on Public Naval Shipyards

by Craig Hooper on September 24, 2018

The misguided drumbeat to privatize America’s four remaining public shipyards is proceeding apace. The latest volley, fired by the Congressional Budget Office (CBO), is a September 2018 report, “Comparing the Costs of Submarine Maintenance at Public and Private Shipyards.” CBO researchers looked at the DSRA costs (Docking Selected Restricted Availability) for SSN-688s over the PAST TWENTY YEARS (!!), and came to the obvious “conclusion,” which was, in so many words, that public shipyards are terrible, overpriced and need to be privatized.

That is ridiculous.

Yes, of course, the public yards cost a lot and have a lot of inefficiencies. But the trade-off is that the Nation’s private shipyards do highly-skilled work that is difficult to compete and complete. One yard is based forward, at Hawaii, far from where traditional shipyard labor-forces concentrate. In essence, these shipyards offer the government convenience and schedule flexibility that private shipyards will never match.

The CBO report itself is flawed at the outset. Using historical info (twenty years of pricing data!!) to predict present/future performance might work if one was  predicting, oh, tree growth or something, but….it’s not a way to predict shipyard costs. Using extensive historical pricing data is, frankly, a ridiculous answer to a simple question. I am simply stunned rational people at CBO let this study advance….Remember, the ostensive rationale for the study was, according to CBO, this:

Recently, several navy attack submarines have been delayed in receiving maintenance at public shipyards. As a result , they have missed deployments or had shortened deployments. They Navy could send some submarines to private shipyards for overhauls. However, the Navy has state that it prefers using public shipyards because it believes that they cost less.

Fine.

To make that case (and there is a case to be made for more private-sector support for subs! I’m not a private-sector yard hater!!), the CBO needed to drill down into present demand, costs, and possibly discuss how maintenance work could help grow the cadre of workers needed to absorb demand from the SSBN program and a likely uptick in SSN production. But instead, they go dig into ancient history for pricing data.

Why?

Because HII and General Dynamics need to feed their stockholders and want more tasty, high-margin sub maintenance and nuclear ship decommissioning work.

It is beyond stupid to employ 20 year-old data to inform modern-day shipyard performance requirements. This CBO report was not trying to help solve the immediate maintenance problem, but it was just another front in the effort to privatize everything.

Let’s dig into this.

The Navy Ain’t a Business:

This whole public shipyard privatization exercise gets back to a simple logical fallacy that national security is a business. It is not. The U.S. Navy is not businesses and Congress cannot expect any navy to operate like a business. Public shipyards are going to be, by their nature, sloppy things. They can’t, for example, engineer and refine their labor mix as easily as private entities, firing and hiring as needed. Though they are in shipbuilding centers, they’re also–as I have said before–set forward, in places like, oh, Hawaii, to support the fleet where support is needed.

Public shipyards are also going to be working issues that are often very “niche” oriented, where highly-skilled labor is needed and the prospect for viable private competition is limited. Public shipyards are the last place to seek lowest-cost-technically-acceptable solutions.

Yes, public shipyards DO compete with the private sector. Yes, there’s a reason why hungry ship-repairers like Detyens and Vigor aren’t in the sub business. But the idea that public shipyards and their highly-trained workforces are ripping opportunities from the poor mom-and-pop private shipyards is, frankly, overdone. Right now, most public shipyard work is a niche stuff that could only really be done by Huntington Ingalls and General Dynamics.

Now, there is a case for giving HII and General Dynamics more submarine work. But they need to compete now, today, and not rest on price/competition laurels from two decades ago. By peddling twaddle, the CBO lost an opportunity to do the Navy some real good.

The CBO Report:

The CBO looked at the cost of Los Angeles Class SSN Docking Selected Restricted Availabilities (DSRAs) from 1993 to the present. Their result–that the public yards were fleecing the taxpayer to the tune of forty percent came after sprinkling the numbers under so much fairy dust estimates that is impossible to distinguish truth from fiction.

To me, that failure to show the statistical “work” is always a “tell”.

We are looking a present-day conditions–ostensibly, if the CBO wasn’t looking at privatization, the CBO is looking for ways to help relieve the present-day backlog in Sub maintenance, right? So why go waaay back to 1993 to look at cost records. Focus on the most recent work–the stuff that wasn’t done twenty years ago.

If you look at the last decade–the 2010s–what is immediately obvious is that only two public yards have completed Los Angeles Class DSRAs. Those yards are the Pearl Harbor Naval Shipyard and the Portsmouth Naval Shipyard, with Pearl Harbor carrying most of the load. Of the public shipyards, they’re the most expensive.

And yet, the CBO, for this time period, discovered the cost difference between the private and public yards is, oh, roughly 25%.

That, right there, is also a “tell”. When the “correct” answer isn’t obvious, just reach for more and more data until the answer  appears.

The labor alone almost makes up for the difference. Using the FY-19 man-hour labor cost figures (available in any O&M budget justification book), labor costs at Pearl Harbor are about 20% higher than work done at at a center of shipbuilding/shipwork like Norfolk (from the Feb 2018 O&M justification book, PHNS estimated labor cost per man/day was $1005,59 and PNS was $984.75  while NNS was $817.86). Eliminate East Coast transit cost and the cost of accommodating a Hawaii-based crew in CONUS for 100+ (Or, as I explain below, 400+) days, and suddenly the cost differential from exploiting the HII labor force becomes far less exciting.

And then there’s the time differential. Since 2010, the public yards kept their subs for, on average, 209 days. The private yards took twice as much time–399 days. How much operational time does that eat up?  I mean, look HII got USS Helena’s DSRA started last October, and, as of August, the yard was getting change orders/contract modifications for millions of dollars.

That dancing around obvious problematic data is a “tell” too.

And what it all ultimately tells me is that this report is little more than a hatchet job.

Conclusion:

The CBO is full of sh*t.

Really. There’s no other way to put it. I am ashamed that our local defense journalists didn’t call the CBO on this transparent piece of “casework”, and call it for what it is (it’s not a press release, guys….reports are made to be reviewed with a jaundiced eye).

Eric Labs should be ashamed this came out of his shop.

Don’t get me wrong. The public shipyards serve a purpose. They help the Navy get the job done. But they’re not meant to be profit-centers–they’re often doing difficult jobs in places where there’s nobody to do it.

Likewise, private sector shipyards have hurdles to overcome. They need to build a labor force. If there’s a work backlog, then it makes some sense (if there’s an economic case to be made) to throw a bit of this work to the private yards to help them grow the workforce required for the SSBN recapitalization. If HII puts some investment into Pascagoula to re-introduce their old, long-retired submarine shipyards there, then it might be useful for the Navy to send some of the SSN maintenance backlog down there to build up a sub-ready workforce in that soon-to-be-contested part of the world. But, at the end of the day, the market rules. And if the private shipyards cannot do the job, the Navy is under no obligation to subsidize or otherwise coddle them.

Look, everybody loves to hate public shipyards. But they do good work and fulfill needs that the private sector cannot–or won’t–meet efficiently (Guam’s shabby shipyard looks up from the bar, waves and the Coast Guard’s shipyard looks up from his lottery cards and shouts a colorful oath or two). Let’s get over it, and rather than just arrange for a fat-cat transfer of assets to the private sector, let’s urge Congress to give the private yards the funds they need to recapitalize their crumbling infrastructure, add a few extra dry-docks, and really get about enabling these pieces of infrastructure to do their job of supporting the national security of the United States.

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Arleigh Burke Wisdom in the Age of AI

August 31, 2018

Back in January 1984, the U.S. Naval Institute’s Proceedings Magazine published some commentary by World War II destroyer skipper and former CNO, Admiral Arleigh Burke. The free-wheeling comments from this old Analog Admiral are appropriate in today’s whiz-bang AI era. Now, to understand the context of his comments, Admiral Burke–who had built his wartime reputation […]

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Unpopular Opinion: Russia’s Sub Fleet is Dying

July 7, 2018

For all the dire talk about Russia’s undersea resurgence and phoenix-like re-emergence from post-Cold War disarray, Russia’s nuclear sub fleet is dying. There is no denying it. Despite all the hand-wringing over increased undersea activity and fretful talk of new sub designs and weapons, nothing of substance has changed since the Cold War. Outside of […]

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When “Kill The Robots” Is Routine

June 23, 2018

Even the most optimistic unmanned evangelists must acknowledge that naval doctrine will, eventually, boil itself down to a simple precept: “Kill the Robot, and Quickly”. My sense is that America, as the first-mover in the unmanned space, finds that future somewhat distasteful. It is difficult to move from uncontested exploitation of potential utility to a […]

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Is the West Ignoring Asian Naval Architecture?

June 6, 2018

Asia is in the midst of a naval renaissance. But this renaissance has failed to lead to widespread adoption of Japanese and South Korean warship designs in the West. Why? Not that there haven’t been opportunities for hybridization. But the American FFG(X) program is full of European designs, the Australian Navy has rebuilt their Navy […]

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Is HII’s “Missing” FFG(X) Using StanFlex? Is it a Type 31e?

May 23, 2018

What is Huntington Ingalls Industries (HII) going to offer for the FFG(X) competition? America is in the midst of a multi-billion-dollar competition for the next surface combatant, and HII–after years of gleeful anti-LCS rabble-rousing, agitating for FFG(X) and showing all kinds of notional National Security Cutter (NSC)-based FFG(X) prototypes–has gone completely and utterly quiet. Why […]

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Sea State 3 Limitations Mean Failed Operations

May 14, 2018

By now it should be pretty obvious that the post-Cold War U.S. Navy forgot about high-Sea-State operations…and somehow decided to harness the Navy’s future to a foolish idea that Sea State 3 was a fine operational goal for critical shipboard systems. It made sense.  Life was good back in the Post Cold War era–The Navy […]

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Appreciate the Un-deterrable Sub

April 23, 2018

Future undersea attackers will become far less deterrable. That’s a big shift–the idea that attacking submarines are deterrable has been enshrined in ASW Doctrine since World War I, and, even today, the idea that undersea attackers can be forced to break off their attack (or other mission) informs the resourcing and posture of ASW assets. […]

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Huntington Ingalls Confronts the Stigma of Shipbuilding

April 17, 2018

With all the fun and excitement of Washington’s Sea/Air/Space exposition, it was easy to overlook one of the more interesting and consequential displays of the show. Most observers missed it–because this Huntington Ingalls offering was stuck off on a tractor-trailer, off the display floor. It was parked way out back, beyond the reach of the […]

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