President Trump’s 350 Ship Fleet (Update II)

by Craig Hooper on June 24, 2017

President Trump can get a 350-ship fleet by the next election. Back in November 2016, I sketched out a rapid path for 350 ships. It was built around my central thesis–that the Navy and New SECNAV had to be near to 350 by 2020.

There’s still a lot of folks-who-should-know-better who believe President Trump’s promise meant that America had decades to get to a fleet of 350. Any advocates for that path haven’t done a single bit of research on President Trump or his preference for quick execution.

THE NAVY HAS ONLY THREE YEARS.

The best the Navy can hope for is to lash a sensible, long-term 350-ship plan with a far faster, “80% solution” set of 350 by 2020. If the Navy can’t get to 350 by 2020, it won’t get a longer-term expansion plan.

My plan focused on: 1) Raiding the Reserves; 2) Reclassify; 3) Buy some Boats; 4) Tap the National Fleet; 5) Speed up the Pipeline; and 6) Stop Decommissionings.

As part of what will be a regular feature, let’s check in and see how we’re doing, starting from today’s Naval Vessel Register Ship Battle Force size of 276.

Raiding the Reserves:

From the article traffic over the past few weeks, it appears the Navy is reviewing any and all reserve ships for potential reactivation. That’s good, and I support any and all studies on the fate of older, potentially second-string warships.

Again, as I said earlier, the ships in true “mothballs” stand the greatest chance of reactivation–and that will mean the Navy might get from two to maybe five total ships from this source (two T-AOEs and–if we stretch, three LHAs and a CV). Jerry Hendrix and Robert C. O’Brien have urged reactivation of combatants that haven’t been preserved in the reserve fleet. We might–might–get eight frigates out of this, but I have my doubts. I will drop the LHAs and hold at (+2). [Fleet Size 278]

Reclassify:

This is where we will see real action. Nobody noticed the March announcement of Task Force Ocean and the CNO’s quiet visit to an Oceanographic Survey Ship in April. There are six T-AGSs in the fleet, and the USNS Bowditch (T-AGS 62) has a record of conflict with PLA(N) ships that a combatant can only dream about. Look to see these ships be added to the Combat Fleet, serving as UUV tenders or something. (+6)

I expect the thirteen PC-1 Patrol Boats to be counted in the battle fleet, but, as this will require an act of Congress, it’ll take time. Senator McCain won’t like it, but since when has the Congress stood between President Trump and one of this policy goals? (+13) [Fleet Size 297]

Buy Some Boats:

No real progress has been made in this area. But if the USS Fitzgerald incident is any indicator, it suggests the Navy really needs deepwater-ready salvage and recovery ships. What would have happened if the Fitz was holed somewhere farther from help?  I mean, harbor tugs are great, but, if we are building survivable vessels and sending them into harms way (with inattentive or overtasked or undertrained crews, ahem), America needs more all-weather salvage/rescue/recovery ships. History has shown that these ships are enormously useful, and, as long as oil is cheap, a relevant production run of well-maintained utility ships should be bought up, painted grey, and put to work as a backstop the yet-t0-be-contracted T-ARS(X) Class. (+10) [Fleet Size 307]

Tap the National Fleet:

This is where the action is gonna be. We’re already seeing a lot of work going into identifying duplicative government services, and the balkanized National Fleet, split between a bewildering number of agencies, is sort of sitting there, exposed to budget cutters.

With the National Fleet ripe for rationalization, it would be smart for all parties to sit down with the Navy now, quietly, and determine how they can conspire to keep as much mission capability as they can in a cost-effective way.

I talked about the possibility of the Navy taking over some of the larger USCG fleet units back in November, but I have a few other suggestions:

Make the oceanographic fleet part of the Navy. The acquisition of oceanographic data has been on the front line of maritime conflict–as the Bowditch, Impeccable and other incidents have demonstrated. The Navy is a robust consumer of of oceanographic information and a resource driver in the race to exploit unmanned platforms, sensors and big ocean data, and this area of “big ocean science”, I expect, will be the next area of contest with the Chinese Navy. The recent spotting of a new Impeccable-like ship in a Chinese shipyard this week and some deliberate Chinese research off Guam only confirms that leadership in National Security-relevant Ocean Sciences is on the agenda.

So, what can we do?  Well, given that the Navy already builds and owns T-AGOR platforms (and I assume, the design) used for the research fleets, it makes sense to add the sixteen ships in the NOAA Fleet to the U.S. Navy. These can–if the NOAA and the Navy are able to agree on how to manage NOAA’s collaborative civilian research work–be absorbed into Task Force Ocean. Out of that, NOAA will get access to some really interesting gear and possibly some info that it might not obtain via it’s existing fleet structure, while the Navy will get to ensure the rationalization of the research fleet while guaranteeing that critical oceanographic data for the deep Pacific and elsewhere will continue to be collected without interruption. (+16)

In the process, the Navy should absorb the larger Navy-owned vessels at the University National Oceanographic Laboratory System (UNOLS). Take the large ships owned by the likes of the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution, Scripps, and Washington State and put ’em in the fleet. This step allows President Trump to demonstrate his commitment to the Navy while also suggesting that he’s being tough on those pesky climate control research folks. In the meantime, the Navy can help rationalize the design features for follow-on vessels while getting the oceanographic support it needs for future operations. The Navy even gets access to a little icebreaker, too. (+13 at least)

Place the Training Academy Fleet into the Navy. There are seven maritime academies in the United States, and America desperately need mariners. Place their training ships (an odd-lot set of ships that are ready for retirement) into the Navy, and then take MARAD’s National Security Multi-Mission Vessel (NSMV) Program away from that festering sore of an agency (That said, I have high hopes for the current Administrator Mark “Buz” Buzby–he rocks!), and move out smartly. For those that don’t know, the NSMV program would attempt to leverage the maritime academies for national emergencies by providing them with vessels capable of offering some simple disaster support resources (i.e. helo flight decks, command and control, medical support, ro-ro/amphib)–like a small Damen 16000 logistic support vessel, or MRAV or something like that. This would be a great way to get a good handful of handy-size support craft (the ships that are really useful militarily, but can’t pass muster with modern-day military accountants) into national service. These would be perfect ships for Philly Shipyard to build, the states would love it and it would all fit into President Trump’s wider efforts to rebuild the American workforce (+7).

I won’t say anything about transferring platforms from the USCG to the USN, but adding modestly-refreshed FFG-7 Frigates to serve in an EEZ patrol role would be a great help, doing a lot of good in meeting long-forgotten USCG patrol goals last articulated WAAAAY back in the Deepwater era. [Fleet Size 343]

Speed Up the Pipeline:

I see a lot of talk here, but nothing concrete has emerged yet–the “wholeness” budget wasn’t helpful with regards to numbers, but improving readiness is a critical thing. As I said last time, we’ve got at least 25 ships in various stages of production and about nine set for delivery well before the election. (+9)  [Fleet Size 352]

Stop Decommissionings:

No change here. No surface ships are slated for decommissioning (4 tugs and salvors plus the LSD Pence) and we’ll lose some subs.

Conclusion:

The 350-ship Navy is within sight.

Not only that, it’s looking like an increasingly easy lift. Most of these hybrids that enter the fleet from other agencies can adopt to the MSC pretty easily.

It might just work. With some adept management of the narrative, using the high-tech militarily-necessary “oceanographic support” arms race approach to get to 350 ships would  be a pretty neat solution for a pretty ambitious campaign promise.

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Another Mishap: The Wreck of the USS Fitzgerald

by Craig Hooper on June 19, 2017

So the USS Fitzgerald got holed by a freighter. It is unfortunate and tragic that sailors lost their lives. The survivors managed to save their ship–carrying out the mission they’re trained to do, and the Navy, from the CNO down, did a good job of keeping everyone informed.

These things happen.

Coupled with efforts to acknowledge the crew’s efforts in saving the vessel, a grim accounting has begun. The always-eloquent John Kirby–with help from an eloquent Wall Street Journal Op Ed dug up by Bryan McGrath–sums up the next steps on a post over at CNN. In short, he details the accountability measures that’ll likely be meted out upon the crew responsible for hazarding the ship. It’s good. Read it. But what he does not address is systemic accountability. While it’s easy and cathartic to cheer the desperate teamwork that saved the ship while treating the disgraced as a single point failure and dispatching them from the service, it doesn’t help identify and solve any underlying problems that may have contributed to this disaster.

It is far harder to champion the relentless identification and rectification of systemic Navy failures. I fear, in the aftermath of this latest mishap, that the Navy will fall short, focusing on the Fitzgerald only, when the Fitz may be a symptom of a larger problem.

Let’s start with a blunt assertion.

Ship Handling/Navigation Is Not A Navy Strength

Since FY 2009, the Navy’s ship handling/navigation record has been, at best, checkered. Here’s the list of avoidable incidents:

  • USS Antietam (CG grounding)
  • USS Georgia (SSBN grounding)
  • USS Louisiana (SSBN collision w/MSC vessel)
  • USS Tortuga (LSD allision–$2.5 million)
  • USS Taylor (FFG grounding–$5 million)
  • USS Guardian (MCM grounding-total loss)
  • USS Jacksonville (SSN collision–at least $2.5 million)
  • USS Montpelier/USS San Jacinto (SSN/CG collision–over $80 million dollars in damages)
  • USS Porter (DDG collision–$50 million dollars)
  • USS Essex (LHD collision w/MSC vessel–$2,5 million)
  • USS Port Royal (CG grounding–about $50 million in damage)
  • USS Hartford/USS New Orleans (SSN/LPD collision–$120 million dollars of damage to the sub alone)
  • USS Fitzgerald (DDG collision)

The bolded incidents resulted in serious damage. I’ve missed a few, but I’ll add in the Great 2016 Patrol Craft Debacle (navigation/prep/capture) for good measure.

There are a couple of ways to look at this record. Some out there might say that the Navy is doing alright. And, yes, I’d agree–but while the U.S. Navy is thankfully not suffering through the bad old days of 1989-91, when it seemed there were fires, collisions and other mishaps every day, the Navy’s recent record isn’t that great.  Let’s not sugar-coat this. We’ve got a small enough fleet as it is, and the casualties listed above, if added to the maintenance mistakes and the fires (Remember the cigarette-sparked $70 million-dollar USS George Washington fire and the USS Miami arson debacle? And as a courtesy, I won’t even add in the LCS operational and maintenance SNAFUs), preventable accidents sidelined the equivalent of a carrier battle group.

Over the past decade, avoidable accidents “sunk” an SSN and MCM, severely disabled a CG, 2 DDGs, and 2 SSNs, and sidelined  a CVN and CG at critical moments. The rest are essentially shorter-term mission kills.

That’s not a good record.

Despite all the rosy trend lines developed over at the Navy safety center, I’d urge somebody out there to go compare the U.S. Navy surface combatant mishap rates with mishap rates over at the Military Sealift Command, the USCG or the NOAA fleets. The results (when stripped of all the usual caveats, exceptions and defensive data shaping one encounters when comparing seamanship measures between National Fleet components) might serve as an eye-opening corrective.

I’m not paving new ground here. Anybody who reads the Navy investigation reports after these mishaps can’t help but acknowledge that bad seamanship is cited as a frequent contributor. The record suggests there are some systemic issues here that need action–training, more sea time, more work without electronic aids to navigation or…something.

It’s a gritty, ugly, self-reinforcing calculus–with so few ships, the Navy simply cannot afford mishaps when every ship is critical. So that leads to risk aversion, less time in complex sea situations, and then a further decline in sailing skill. The Navy has gotta thread the needle somehow–recognizing the critical nature of front-line assets, while allowing for development of navigational/warfighting mastery. For the Navy, the truism that “China will be broken” is right, and acceptable. Even some of the best Navy Admirals learned their craft by running their craft aground (it’s one of the reasons I value a high-low fleet mix).

But the “even Nimitz screwed up” defense wears thin after awhile. I mean, the Chinese Navy may not be following a training pathway that gets ships ready for “battle” in a timely fashion, but…they’re certainly methodically building up their seamanship skills. And, well, for that matter, when was the last time anybody heard about a Chinese Navy mishap?  A grounding?

I’ve heard of one recent instance. That’ s it.

The Navy’s gotta do a better job at seamanship. The Navy community has been clucking about this for a long time, but…are things getting better?  Or worse?

Look Hard at Discipline:

I’m also a little worried about how today’s “break all the norms” and “rules are for suckers” attitudes might be impacting the fleet.

If naval leaders will not (or cannot?) vigorously enforce Navy standards, Navy rules and regulations, and fail to reinforce the idea that, by following the regs, each individual crew member supports the entire team aboard their vessel/command, it gets easier to start drawing lines of causation between, say, a sailor hiding out in an engine room for days as his fleet launches a huge Search and Rescue effort, or somebody tossing trash disks over the side for no discernible reason….to, ah, somebody, oh, sleeping on watch or neglecting some other mission-critical duty.

Accidents happen when nobody gives a damn about the other members of the team.

One need only look at the events that led to the Iranian capture of U.S. sailors (or the Fat Leonard Scandal). Members of the Navy community who know better just aren’t following the rules and regulations. Now, I’m no sticker for rules and regs, but often these things were proven out in blood and were put in place to save sailor’s lives.

So…I am worried. I am concerned some sailors and some officers aren’t even aware that their actions (or lack oversight) affect the lives of many of their colleagues. And that’s really disturbing–not just because one bad apple can make everybody who is doing their job well look bad, but because it’s really really hard to change course when more and more personnel–from the admiral on down–pick the easy route.

Conclusion: 

So. The Fitz is still holed by a freighter. Join in and cheer the crew that got the Fitzgerald back to port, weep for the dead and share the sadness as responsible parties aboard–and likely often good people–are identified and punished for what could have been a momentary lapse, or a simple mistake or a wholesale failure of the crew or..anything.

But don’t stop there. Don’t stop with the board investigation findings.

We owe it to those lost to take a hard and unsparing look at the institution.

If sailors and officers are contributing to preventable accidents….if Navy personnel are failing each other by neglecting what they perceive as nitnoid rules, regs and practices, then the system has a problem that needs fixing.

Stamping out any of this sort of rot that exists (if it does) might be a good challenge for a future SECNAV.

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The Reserve Fleet Won’t Make 350

June 13, 2017

In the race to a 350-ship Navy, all eyes are on the mothball fleet. According to the CNO, at a War College speech, reactivation proposals are being mulled for about eight of the twenty-two Oliver Hazard Perry Class Frigates in layup. I’d assume similar proposals are focused on the two “surplus” T-AOEs (Bridge and Rainer) […]

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Yes, Small Boats Are Useful In the High-End Fight

March 26, 2017

The prospect of high-end maritime warfare is no excuse to forget everything about low-end conflict and shrug off the valid, real-world lessons gleaned from gritty, grinding low-end sea conflicts like, oh, the Sri Lankan small-boat war. Sri Lanka demonstrated that small boats are critical in the low-end fight and suggested that they might be darned […]

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President Trump, Nominate A SECNAV ASAP

March 19, 2017

One of the biggest frustrations I have with White House staff (of any party) is that moment when happy West Wing “warrior functionaries” get drunk on their power and start micro-managing, inserting themselves too deeply in obscure Department of Defense operations than is politically healthy. Despite anything the underestimated White House powerbroker Rick Dearborn says […]

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Osprey Down: Learning From Another Hard Landing

February 5, 2017

Last week America lost an MV-22 Osprey, a Special Operator and, in addition, had several servicemen injured in a bungled “fishing expedition” in Yemen. What can we learn from this? Details are trickling out, but regardless of their veracity (first reports are often wrong, and there’s always a lot of CYA in this sort of […]

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The Next SECNAV Is…Philip Bilden!

January 27, 2017

The next SECNAV is going to be “off-the-radar” financier Philip Bilden. Mr. Bilden will be taking on an important post–he’ll run the tip of the spear of any kinetic (and some non-kinetic!) actions the Trump Administration might consider, leading service honored with a Trump-promised 350 ship goal, and his tenure will be blessed with a host […]

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Mulling Bath’s “Bad” Bid

January 19, 2017

Reports claim that General Dynamics Bath Ironworks is trying to force the Navy to grant it a cost-plus contract to build the initial Flight III DDG-51 destroyer. The cost-plus request is a real head-scratcher for observers–and it is an action that should concern every Blue-Water Navalist out there. Obviously, a cost-plus proposal is a pretty […]

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How Big Defense CEOs Can Try To Manage Mr. Donald Trump

January 1, 2017

In the Trump Era, “Big Defense” CEOs must either market themselves as visionary, “national” assets or wait to die under withering attack from the White House. Look, for any defense company has a big marquee program like the F-35, the Ford Class Carrier or the SSBN(X), being a colorless, faceless and largely anonymous means of […]

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What Will Trump’s 350 Ship Navy Mean for Bath Ironworks?

December 3, 2016

If the Trump Administration is going to build a 350-ship Navy, then Bath Ironworks will have a big role. I had a chance to talk with the Times Record’s Nathan Strout, and offered a few thoughts on the future fleet’s impact upon Bath Ironworks. There’s some skepticism out there about the 350-ship goal. Let me […]

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