In Press: The New Naval Race To Look Good

by Craig Hooper on March 15, 2019

I have a post up at Forbes.com, discussing how emerging/re-emerging navies are exploiting the U.S. Navy’s increasingly shabby visage. I urge you all to take a look, here.

There are a few other ancillary items that didn’t make the piece, but they were interesting enough to merit additional discussion.

Item 1: Image Does Matter:

Many of you probably dismiss naval reviews and port calls as meaningless time-wasters. Other readers are probably mulling time-worn adages about how units are either good at review or good at fighting–never both.

I disagree. Image may not be everything, but good-looking ships certainly instill a sense of pride in their crews. Grungy ships can help some ugly habits to take root. I also think that if a Navy doesn’t look the part, the organization risks losing a certain amount of public respect or standing. Certainly, “professionals” out there might know rusty-looking U.S. Navy ships are ready, but, to the general public in quite a few countries, image is everything. It is, at some level, a simple matter of psychology–why else do Fire and Police Departments spend an enormous amount of time keeping their vehicles clean? It’s not because they like the local car wash. It’s because they need to represent their community in a positive fashion–and that they probably reap operational benefit from being tidy.

But it’s not just about projecting a squared away public image; you’ve got to exploit that image, too–or it’s not worth the bother. The outcomes might be hard to quantify, but…any way you cut it, pier-side and public engagements, backed by a proud, squared-away “Grey Diplomat or two”, are important opportunities to engage a host country and help welcoming ex-pats peddle their various influences.

China is doing quite well at this. The PLA(N) knows the value of good stage management, they understand the power of imagery, and they (along with the rest their government) have invested a good amount of energy working the soft-power angles that they can extract maximum value from their platforms. Take the PLA(N) visit to the U.S. in 2015. I’d love to know a bit more behind the decision-making process that led the Chinese Fleet’s visit to Mayport, Florida. Did the PLA(N) push for a Mayport visit? Did they reject other options? I’m interested because the Florida visit–landing in Donald Trump’s backyard–seems quite fortuitous now.

That visit certainly helped bolster the profile of potentially useful folks like Li Yang, the “massage parlor entrepreneur” and influence peddler who was positioning herself to be a pro-China, ah, “lobbyist” to President Trump. In 2015, she started the Overseas International Female Organization, and was, according to Mother Jones Magazine,

“…invited to attend the welcoming ceremony for three Chinese warships that docked in Florida along with the Chinese ambassador to the United States and China’s Houston-based consul general…”

That’s how soft-power works. But…I’d wager that the U.S. Navy, the State Department and other agencies lack sufficient bandwidth (or interest) to even attempt such a sophisticated integration of various threads of various types of, ah, public diplomacy. My sense is that some in the Navy approach ceremonial port calls as, at best, logistical problems to be overcome rather than interesting opportunities to be fully exploited via an all-of-government approach. And that’s….that’s a problem.

Item 2: The Navy’s Ongoing Difficulty In Recognizing Hard Truths:

The second issue is the Navy’s apparent unwillingness to recognize obvious, albeit uncomfortable truths, and an unwillingness to socialize/disseminate those truths into disparate command chains.

Take the USS Boxer’s inability to sail for RIMPAC 2018. Boxer couldn’t sail, and the Brazilians–who were participating for the first time and were planning to sail on the Boxer–dropped out of RIMPAC in early July, probably in disgust. It was a diplomatic mess–made even worse by the fact that the Boxer should have been pulled as an option back in late 2017.

So….why was Boxer being used? Anybody with a brain would have realized months in advance of RIMPAC that the Boxer was getting stuck in the yard and was unlikely to be ready in time to support the exercise. The Boxer entered the yards for a refit that was supposed to be completed by October 2017, but the schedule slid right and just kept sliding. But…nothing happened. And then, after post refit sea-trials only started in the last days of February 2018, again, RIMPAC should have been removed from the ship’s schedule. And THEN, somehow, somebody in charge thought it might be a good idea to schedule a CO change of command in July, right in the middle of RIMPAC SOCAL–the operations Boxer was originally slated to support.

So, the long and short of it is that there was just no way the Boxer was going to get to RIMPAC. The Boxer should have been pulled from the slate of available ships in October (at the very least!), and an effort to find the Brazilians a place on a suitable ship should have started right then and there (if not before!). But my sense is that nothing happened. Why? Why did the material condition of the vessel fail to inform planning? Were leaders insisting the ship be ready and refusing to enable work-arounds? Did they even know? Why didn’t anybody probe alternatives? Who was in charge of this clusterf**k?!

This apparent institutional failure to absorb and confront cold, hard fact is distressing, and it would, in this case, be worth conducting a deep, forensic analysis on the Navy’s communications and decision-making process here. I certainly could be wrong, but from the outside, the Boxer saga feels like a mix of ugly command climate, informational silos, and a sludgy, almost cowardly kicking-the-can-until-the-last-possible-minute form of decision-making. It’s got the same feel as the decision-making process that led to the USS McCain and USS Fitzgerald disasters.

I am worried. When real indications and warnings fail to transmit effectively….it’s how Pearl Harbor happens.

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In Press: No Reserve Ships On The Road To 355

by Craig Hooper on March 7, 2019

Glad to see the Navy finally, irrevocably, kill off the pipe-dream of resurrecting the FFG-7s. As I said about two years ago, when I first panned the fever-dreams of the “Reactivate the FFG-7” crowd, “America need FFGs less than a policy and strategy to guide the graceful transition of combatants from front line duties, through reserve/potential recall status and all the way to the ship’s ultimate retirement.” Hopefully, now that we’re committing to keeping the DDG-51s operational, there will be more thinking along those lines. But here’s my two-cents on the ultimate death of the FFG-7s in the Times Record:

“The scheme to raid the reserve fleet was a figment of (a) fevered and uninformed imagination. It was unrealistic from the start,” he said. “The important thing to note is that the calls to restore the (frigates) was based more upon emotion than upon rational thought.”

According to Hooper, the frigates the Navy was hoping to revive would simply be far too expensive to prepare to reenter the fleet for the limited service life they would provide. The old ships would be essentially obsolete in today’s Navy, he said.

But, of course, as with any big decisions regarding naval ships, the irrepressible Nathan Strout wondered if an FFG-7 reactivation would have meant more work for Bath Ironworks.

My answer was, well, no. This is not the type of work Bath either wants or needs.

Bath is a fabrication yard, and the skills required for repair and for new construction are different. Repair–particularly a repair and restoration of thirty-year old hulks–is not a good business to be in. Well…not really. Repairing a thirty-year old hulk for a paying customer could be great (GREAT!) business. But not for Bath. Sure, Bath would be a logical contender to serve as the planning yard, but competition from scrappy yards like Detyens or BAE Jax, or Philly Shipyard would drive the margins for the refit itself down to nothing.

For Bath, if they’re going to stay on as part of the General Dynamics constellation of businesses, it’s probably win the FFG or bust (or become some sort of a sub maintaining yard, but that’s a post for another day).

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Winners and Losers from the 2019 USNA Ship Selection

February 24, 2019

The U.S. Naval Academy’s annual Ship Selection “rite-of-passage” is enormous fun. Of course, it happened more than a month ago, so I’m a little late to the party. But, that aside, two things really struck me: the participation of the Japanese Maritime Self Defense Force (JMSDF) and the non-participation of the Avenger Class MCM and […]

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Let’s Build a New National Shipyard, Part II

February 9, 2019

In continuing the discussion sparked by my recent DefenseOne.com proposal to build a new National Shipyard, let’s take a few minutes to examine maintenance work-load estimates. Even though low-balling the cost of operations and maintenance is an old, long-standing habit in certain parts of the Pentagon, the game is no longer fun, and it needs […]

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Admiral John Aquilino Gets It

February 1, 2019

It was great to see the Pacific Fleet Commander, Admiral John Aquilino, head over to one of the more important National Shipyards–the Puget Sound Naval Shipyard & Intermediate Maintenance Facility–and rally the workforce. This is exactly the sort of high-level attention the National Shipyards need if they’re going to be sufficiently resourced. There’s no transcript […]

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Let’s Build A New National Shipyard, Part I

January 22, 2019

I published a commentary over at DefenseOne.com last week, suggesting that the Navy commission a new public shipyard. You can read it here, but the general gist is this: The U.S. Navy’s four public shipyards are overwhelmed. Budget documents show that their workload exceeds their capacity by 117 to 153 percent — that is, there’s too much to get done […]

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The Pacific Pivot as An Old LCU

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 […]

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Inside the CBO’s Attack on Public Naval Shipyards

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 […]

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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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